“Mohammed, Mohammed, and Ibrahim were their names. We used to love going out of Beit Hanoun a little ways to our favourite open area. We’d smoke nargila, drink tea, listen to music, cry…whatever, we were in a quiet place, alone but together, friends.”
Ahmed, 24, has lived through some of Gaza’s worst years, including the last massacre, 3 weeks of non-stop Israeli bombing throughout Gaza.
“November 2006 was also a bad time in Beit Hanoun. The Israelis killed 18 people, almost all from the same family. And there were many other invasions,” terrible times, he explained. “I love this town, but it’s hard living here.”
“The worst for me was February 23rd 2008. It wasn’t an invasion, just one isolated strike. My friends and I had gone out of Beit Hanoun, to get away, to our place of solitude. We were going to barbeque, smoke nargila, relax…
There was this explosion. I couldn’t see, the smoke was thick, blinding. Instinctively I found I was running, running away from the smoke and the explosion. But I stopped myself, because I realized my friends weren’t with me. I still couldn’t see clearly when I got close to our picnic area.
When the air finally cleared enough, I saw them. In pieces, so many little pieces.
I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t talk. I cried and cried, for maybe half an hour. Then I tried to call an ambulance, but I was still crying so hard the dispatcher couldn’t understand me. I called a friend instead and told him to bring a car and come here. He asked why, and I just told him to come here, still crying.
We collected my friends in pieces and took them to the hospital.”
Like many Palestinians with tragedies beneath their skin, Ahmed’s positive and friendly demeanour belies having seen his closest friends disintegrated, let alone having lived through invasions, abuse from Israeli soldiers, and the prolonged slow death of life within a siege-constructed prison.
He has recounted his story in perfect English.
“I speak Hebrew. I wanted to learn it for a couple of reasons. During one invasion, the Israelis came house to house, checking to see if any of us were involved in resistance activities. I wasn’t, none of my family was, but they looked at our I.D.s anyway. I was the last, and for some reason they took a long time with my I.D. My mother was very nervous. She had the look of a mother who knows her son is going to be taken away. The Israelis kept looking at my I.D., spoke for a long time but I couldn’t understand Hebrew. Finally, after a very long time a soldier threw my I.D. at me, deciding apparently that I was clear. After that experience I was determined to learn Hebrew, so that the next time I could understand what they were saying, could speak to them.
I also learned Hebrew because I love languages. Now I’m going to begin studying French.”
He’s intelligent, clearly. And has a university degree. But, like nearly 50% of Gazan Palestinians, no job.
“My sons and daughter all have degrees, but there’s no work for them,” Ahmed’s father says.
Thankfully, the family is not desperately poor. Their home, inherited from Ahmed’s grandfather, is a solid three story house flanked by fig, lemon, palm, sugar cane, and other fruit-bearing trees. Thick tresses of grape vines tumble across latticework overhead, providing summer shade and succulent grapes.
Ahmed’s father, in a simple white jalabiya, speaks fondly of the days when he tended his farm land.
“We used to have so many trees on our land… lemon, sugar cane…and they were old, too. All bulldozed, by the Israelis,” his father recalls.
“Yes,” his father says, returning to the topic of their home, “it’s a lovely home. But we have no peace of mind. Everyday there are problems, we never know what to expect. We don’t have the simple luxury of travel. In other countries people can take a vacation, leave their home, refresh…”
Fruit and stuffed grape leaves are brought out. Like any Palestinian host, tragedies and problems are put aside in order to honour guests.