For some time now I had been meaning to visit Khitam, a young deaf girl living in Sheyjayee and schooled at the Atfaluna society for deaf children. Interruptions, some procrastination, and Ramadan all delayed the visit. Until yesterday.
I resolved I’d find her and pass along the good wishes of her American friends and now family, Jane and her 14 friends of Palestine, as well as my friend Leila from the UK, who until a few months ago was here in Gaza.
Sheyjayee is a large district east of Gaza city. I know parts of it from transit to the north of Gaza and from visits to friends in the area and to patients in the Al Wafa rehabilitation centre (the one Israeli tanks shelled and shot up during the masscare of Gaza; white phosphorous clumps still smoldered days after when I’d revisited the hospital post-massacre. Incidentally, this is one of the intentional acts of destruction that a UN report cited as considered a war crime on Israel’s part, one of many which include targeting medics, although it wasn’t really a ‘war’ was it?]
But as I learned yesterday, Sheyjayee is a lot larger than I knew. The taxi took me to Mansoora street, where I then began asking for Khitam’s family.
The taxi driver flagged down a local, who flagged down a young boy, who took me to the home I sought. We walked down narrow, sandy lanes, around corners, lanes becoming paths. Like a flash of light as we rounded one corner, an overgrowth of bougainvillea, tumbling in their haphazard way across dirtied, graffitied white walls.
That neighbourhood, however, houses the majority of the extended family, and as Arabic names frequently repeat one another, I found myself at the home of Abu Abdullah, of the Q family…with a Khitam in the family. But it wasn’t our young Khitam.
Fortunately, one of the women in the house, Rupa, an energetic, welcoming, intelligent young woman, helped me out. She is fluent in English, and turns out she’s acted as a translator for Free Gaza delegations. But we conversed in Arabic, she seeming to want to help me improve my Arabic still.
It was no problem, she said, that I crashed into her home without forewarning. She dressed for the streets and we began the 15 minute walk to Khitam’s, Rupa all the while explaining the layout of Sheyjayee and how the different quarters are home to the larger clans of families, this area being the Q clan. The problem was that part of the Q family lived on a different street, which we walked towards.
It was still over an hour before maghreb, before the sunset and call to prayer that announces iftaar. The streets were busy with people buying hummus, falafels, and food to prepare for their fast breaking.
Earlier, in Sheyjayee market area, it was chaos. This pre-iftaar busyness was combined with pre-‘Eid shopping. While ‘Eid won’t be so special for most of Gaza’s impoverished, the vendors still set up shop and try their luck. I stopped at a market stall to buy fresh dates, yellow and crunchy-sweet. Seeing my camera, the vendor insisted I take a photo of his friend, a few metres away, who immediately assumed a dignified pose next to his goods.
Back on Mansoora street, Rupa and I arrived finally at Khitam’s house, climbing to the second floor where her mother was waiting.
I’d actually been there once before, with Leila, but that was half a year ago or more, and I had less of an understanding of the area, and was escorted by an Atfaluna social worker. When I’d visited with Leila, Khitam was at school, so until yesterday I hadn’t met this charming girl.
She beamed. Really, for a child from an impoverished family with the additional weight of dealing with 2 languages –sign and Arabic –she seemed carefree and happy.
We spoke of Leila (who they miss) and Jane (who they’ve yet to meet physically but have many photos and letters from), and Khitam brought out some dolls Jane and her friends had sent as a gift.
I’d used much time actually reaching the house, iftaar was near, and I’d promised to be somewhere, so I left, pleased to meet such a charmer, and began the trip back.
One of my favourite things is noticing the ordinary as I walk or ride in a taxi.
The taxi slows, adding passengers, and I glimpse a man outside a mechanics shop, playing with his toddler. He’s squeaking, squeaking, a plastic toy incessantly, eliciting smiles and gurgles from the child. He spends a good minute doing this, then plops the toddler into the milk crate fastened to his bicycle and rides off.
I’m walking, look across the street and see another father doting on his child. This time its kisses. He pecks the child repeatedly, almost chicken-like, with his kisses, the boy laughing, delighted at this attention.
Sometimes it’s the daily things like friends (young and old) walking arm in arm, arm draped over shoulders, or playfully teasing one another.
Sometimes it’s care with which vendors set up their stalls, piles of spices towering in conical mounds, fruits arranged perfectly.
Sometimes it’s just seeing friends sitting around drinking tea, or the guffaws of laughter as they joke and tease.
It always strikes me as amazing, though I am long-used to such Palestinian resilience, that laughter, beauty and love flourish so in a Strip so occupied, bombed, razed and ravaged by the world’s 4th-most powerful military.