*Mr. Deeb speaks fluent English and some German, as well as his native Arabic. Working his way up from refugee youth to established Gaza resident, he and his family share with Palestinians and internationals alike. But he’s particularly keen on internationals, recalling his travels and friends from his youth.
Every day I hear it: from friends, from taxi drivers, from random strangers who stop me to ask my name/country/the time…
“I love meeting people from other countries,” is the statement echoing off lips throughout Gaza.
There’s a world-lust here, a keen desire to know other cultures and landscapes.
Because Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, occupied East Jerusalem, and siege-controlled/militarily-occupied Gaza have little chance to leave their home areas (particularly those in Gaza. “little chance” is actually “no way in hell” when it comes to Gaza), they resort to other means of knowing the world: meeting internationals, watching tv and movies about other countries, chatting on the net.
Voyeurism, but out of intellectual thirst and siege-inflicted border prohibitions, not laziness.
It is perhaps this mixture of curiosity, yearning to travel, and the inherent hospitality of Palestinians that has resulted in too many phone numbers, promised visits (and apologies), daily encounters, and decades worth of memories to cherish on my part, after only 10 months here. I have many numbers saved in my phone that begin with “taxi” and the name, meaning I’ve met the person on a taxi ride and they’ve insisted I take their number and visit their family.
But aside from my own enriching experiences, it is the denial of dreams and rights we all enjoy that strikes me the most.
Mahfouz the other day spoke of his children (and himself). I’d asked about daily life under siege, curious how a family that is actually doing alright (not grindingly impoverished nor with any martyrs) is affected by this grotesque ‘blockade’, this siege on every aspect of dignity and life in Gaza.
He spoke somewhat of his work, when I prodded, but dwelled mainly on how it all affects his kids: 6 girls and a son.
“They are very happy to meet internationals, because they learn about the world and also feel more hopeful, knowing people outside of Gaza and that people care about Palestine.”
“But we worry about them, too. They see on tv how other cultures live and can travel freely. They see what other kids do at holiday times. But they can’t do any of those things, just stay home. They wonder why their lives are so different from other kids around the world.”
“It affects the students, too, who want to study outside Gaza or maybe have a scholarship outside but cannot leave because of the closed borders.”
Some teenage volunteers from hard-hit Beit Hanoun in Gaza’s north spoke of their own pastimes, but also their urge to see life outside of Palestine.
“When we finish university, we hope to leave, travel, see the world.”
Ibrahim Jeradeh, caretaker of the Gaza war cemetery, is quick to pounce on international guests, offering his knowledge of the history of Gaza and the cemetery, as well as offering water, juice, invites to his home, and his joy at meeting people.
He has a gruff manner of speaking, but seems to have continually open doors.
And sometimes the questions come from the most unexpected people. A number of times I’ve been speaking with a friend happy with their family life and work, or a policeman, or even someone working in a governmental position, and they’ve asked me how they can visit my country. While often enough people ask about living there (many here are desperate to escape the suffocating non-life of life under siege, even if for a few years, then return to Palestine, perhaps with a golden ticket: a passport, freedom to travel –like I have–or perhaps without, but having at least tasted a life where everything isn’t broken or missing or impossibly expensive or bombed-out.), many also ask only about visiting, knowing mountains and snow and fall leaves…
Immediately after the 23 day Israeli massacre of Gaza in winter 2008/2009, after visiting this man’s family in Beit Lahia, northern Gaza, and hearing the story of his mother’s assassination (point-blank shooting, holding a white flag) and numerous of the men’s abduction and detention by Israeli occupation soldiers…he insisted on offering me an orange…from their Israeli-bulldozer-destroyed orange trees.
Certainly with the UN reported 90% extreme poverty levels in Gaza, most people are worrying about meeting their daily food and children’s needs, not traveling. But for those who would travel, study, seek medical treatment, see family, or just breathe abroad, the freedom to move beyond their prison walls is a right most of us take for granted and many in Gaza have never known.