My mood was terrible and I was hot, and neither was cooling down.Found myself in Gaza city’s eastern market area, not really sure where I wanted to go. Strolled through the market and began to calm, soothed by the pulse of life one finds in markets around the world. Didn’t have anything particular I wanted to buy, just wanted to feel something other than the frustration for so many shattered lives, …and other than the oppressive heat.
People called out welcomes, hello what’s-your-names, inti falistiini ? (yarayt! I’d be honoured)…
I came across a vendor selling shirts of different sleeve lengths and colours. My black body shirt which I wear virtually every day shows its wear: a holey elbow, elasticity gone… A replacement was necessary. As I picked out a long sleeve black top, the vendor and I chatted. The normal questions: where did I come from, how did I enter Gaza, how long was I here… and what did I think of Palestinians? Of Gaza?
The last is the hardest question to answer. I sometimes want to say “beautiful”, for there are astonishing glimpses of beauty, if your eyes are open. In a face, in an artistically piled heap of spices, in the pride of one’s work, in a laugh, in the open-doored welcome to visitors…
But I usually say: Palestinians are “ahsan ness“, the best. Kind, hospitable, fun, inspiring…Often the response is, first inti ahsan (you’re better), then, ‘how can I get out of here? anywhere, I’ll go anywhere.” I’ve had a series of half-serious marriage proposals, or simply ‘put me in your bag’ when you leave.
This exasperation and desperation is not due to a lack of pride in their culture, their land, their history, but to the reality in which they live. And really, could I take it as long as they have? No, not likely, not for so long, not with so much drive forward and determination to survive.
Mohammed, the shirt vendor, walked me to a shoe store. I’d not set out to shop, but as mentioned Gaza is in the peak of summer, and my clothes are at the pit of disrepair. I needed sandals, and I remembered a shoe store that sells Khalili sandals. I’d bought sandals in Hebron in 2007 and they’d lasted long, were beautifully-crafted, were inexpensive, and were Palestinian-made. Mohammed left me with a “anything you need, anything, just call me.” This after 10 minutes of talk. Not the first time.
From the sandal store, I meandered, looking for hair ties, desperate to keep my hair up and neck cool. Stopping in a shop with shampoo and various items on display, I asked. No, they had no such ties. Across the street the same thing. But the shop owner suggested where to try and took me out of the shop to point towards the next shop.
A boy was saying something to me. “My father wants you to come back into the store,” he said in Arabic. Inside, the other son was shooed from his chair and sent off to a different shop for the hair ties. I was invited to sit.
We talked. The questions. He mentioned, off-handedly, certain items he didn’t have, like conditioner, because it’s ‘mamnoouh’, forbidden. Conditioner is among the long list of non-essential items that won’t make it into Gaza unless it comes the deep way: underground.
I was curious, and began to ask more about his problems getting items in. He pulled out a number of pages, all items he used to be able to import but no longer can. We spoke of his losses: a $60,000 container of undergarments, caps and gloves, sitting in Ashdod, Israel; a $20,000 container of likewise innocuous items also sitting in Ashdod, both gathering dust (and storage fees) since mid-October 2008.
No bitterness on his face. Dismay, yes, and financial worries. But not a hint of hatred.
As we talked, a friend of his came in, asked the questions, then offered a freshly fried falafel sandwich, hard to turn down. And a cola.
Another friend, a ‘retired, very retired, and very tired,’ English teacher sat down and we began to talk.
Soon I realized an hour had passed, in the company of strangers who are never quite strangers here in Gaza.
My steaming mood was gone, as was the heat, and I again realized I’m still grateful to be here, in this place where people have been driven to desperation. I’m grateful to be with those very people.
*Maklooba, a rice, chicken, nuts and veg dish. This one had charred eggplant and buttery cloves of roasted garlic.