“White donkeys are better,” Hamsa said. Curious as to how colour might make a difference to performance I inquired. “They’re more beautiful,” he answered, explaining the obvious.
But Hamsa did have practical information on what to look for in a donkey, or as it was, a horse.
“Females are better. They bite and kick less than males.”
We met at 6 am, made our way to the outskirts of Gaza, and trawled the Friday animal market, eying possible replacements for Hamsa’s donkey, killed by Israeli shelling during the 3 weeks of war on Gaza.
Hamsa pointed out a horse with a strip of hair standing up along its spine, saying that these horses are esteemed and get better with age.
The market is a large open area, one portion of which is covered with a simple, high-ceilinged tin roof structure which now, after the last war, is more holes than roof.
Moatez, a young man and one of those trying to earn a shekel, heated a large kettle of hot water for tea sales. His younger siblings loaded smaller teapots and toured the market, selling tea for a shekel a cup. It’s their only business, Moatez said, only on Fridays.
Hamsa’s last donkey, pregnant when he bought it, was 700 Jordanian Dinars (JOD), roughly $900 at the time. He had hoped to sell the baby for 300 JOD. Nowadays, post-war and with the siege in full force, donkeys and horses both average 1100 JOD for a healthy animal.
The first horse to catch Hamsa’s eye was a male cross between a donkey and a horse, a handsome animal. However, at a high price and without a cart, it wasn’t practical. Shaddi, a friend along to translate during the purchase, flagged down a Khan Younis neighbour, a local at the markets, and sought his help in securing a good deal.
Shortly after, Abu Mohammed, had negotiated Hamsa’s next choice, another male, chocolate coloured and young, along with a cart. Abu Mohammed warned the seller, “I’ll see you every day. If you sell Hamsa a bad horse, I’ll never buy from you.” This threat carried enough weight, Hamsa got a good horse and decent deal.
Abu Mohammed wasn’t finished, had some advice to pass along. “If your horse works too hard and you give him water, he’ll die right away,” he said, to my surprise. Hamsa, having worked with horses and donkeys for 4 years, knew this. I was thrilled that, in contrast to some I see whipping their donkeys mercilessly, ignorantly, Hamsa had no intention nor practice of doing that. Over a cup of coffee on the street earlier, before we’d left Gaza city, I asked his philosophy on working with donkeys/horses. “You have to treat them gently, with respect,” he summarized, adding that hitting them was pointless and ‘haram’, forbidden.
So we left the market, Hamsa leading his new horse, Shaddi and I on the cart beside him. “God sent me this,” he said in disbelief. “I never imagined I’d get another donkey or horse.”
We passed through Sheyjaiee’s Israel-war-ravaged backstreets of plain, grey cement houses contrasted by lush cascades of vibrant flowers. A father or older brother, not noticing us, kissed and adored a toddler, immersed in his affection.
Hamsa shared his plans. “Today I will let my horse rest and eat well. Tomorrow I’ll start to work.”
Talk turned to Hamsa’s family needs: His pregnant wife, Iman, needs healthy food -fruit, vegetables, chicken. Chicken now sells for roughly 24 shekels/kilo (~$6). Before the siege and the war (which destroyed many chicken farms), it went for 7 shekels/kilo.
With new inspiration, and the same resolve I’d seen in the first meetings, when he’d pointed out his bicycle he was using for work, Hamsa resolved to set aside 10 shekels/day, and to use only 5-10 shekels/day, using the rest of an average 30-40 shekels/day income with horse and cart to buy food for his horse, which will cost 10-15 shekels/day. But he is optimistic. “Now that I have a horse and cart, I have many options on how to earn money.” With his broken bicycle and small basket, Hamsa was limited. “I’ll try vegetables first,” he says, explaining he’ll buy them at the market and peddle them in the backstreets.
“I’ll never forget this favour,” he said, thanking me another time. Again, I pointed out this was an act of solidarity from people outside of Palestine. Many people, I told him, have responded to my call for support for Palestinians in Gaza. Canadian and UK donors, including a UK-based group which has formed under the name Ground Force Gaza, came together to buy this horse, an investment which will allow Hamsa to earn a living and provide for his wife and soon-to-be-born child.
We pulled into the narrow lane leading to the cluster of homes where Hamsa lives, each family desperately poor. Fudall al Bateran, father of teenage Hanin, shot dead by Israeli soldiers during the war on Gaza, was there smiling, echoing thanks.