“My grandmother was Jewish,” a voice drifts out from behind the meagre selection of second-hand clothes.
The souk al fres, a massive market in Gaza’s old district, Sahaa, carrying just about all one needs used to thrive with second-hand clothes and goods brought through open borders via Israel. It was a thrift-shop-junkies dream.
Today, after 1000 days of siege (complete siege, from June 2007, but in reality the siege goes back to Hamas’ election, back to post-Oslo ‘peace years’ when the closures began, denying Palestinians in Gaza of freedom, of work, of medical treatment outside, of imports and exports, and now of all but less than 40 items) (painstakingly aquired), the used-clothes market is bare-bones.
Wa’el is sitting in a room devoid of nearly all but some scarves and many empty hangers.
He tells how his grandfather, “Saddo”, marries Khaya and conceives Wa’el’s mother, Yusra’a.
During the second world war, Saddo –a soldier with the British army– went missing, presumed dead by all but Khaya who kept her hope alive that he was living. His fellow soldiers confirmed his death and Khaya eventually remarried, a Jewish man this time.
Saddo has two brothers:Mahmoud, who marries a christian Palestinian, and Aboud, who marries a muslim Palestinian.
The expulsion of Palestinians from historic Palestine by the Zionists for the creation of Jewish Israel (the Nakba) occurs and Saddo’s brother and his wife flee southwards, settling with hundreds of thousands of refugees in Gaza.
Yusra’a is raised by Saddo’s brother Mahmoud and his christian wife, like their own daughter. She loves her aunt and uncle like a mother and father.
Year pass, they’ve long since lost contact with Khaya as Gaza is under Egyptian control and it’s impossible for Israelis to visit Gaza. The 1967 war and Israeli occupation of Gaza, the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Golan Heights occurs and brings one good thing: Khaya can now visit Gaza, under Israeli occupation and control.
Via Aboud, still living in Jaffa (“he was the only one who didn’t flee; he wasn’t afraid,” says Wa’el), Khaya tracks down Mahmoud, his wife and Khaya’s daughter, now married with 2 sons, 2 daughters, including Wa’el.
“They visited every week; I loved them dearly and knew them as ‘grandmother’ and ‘grandfather’,” he says of Khaya and her Jewish husband whose name Wa’el doesn’t know as he simply thought of him as his grandfather.
Wa’el tells his story, sipping coffee, in a gentle, unimposing manner. He dwells on his memories of Jaffa, of the days he felt some comparative freedom and life. “Jaffa, in Canaanite language ‘Jaffo’, means ‘beautiful’,” he says.
“Khaya’s husband was a good man, a very good man. Honest, kind. Sometimes they’d take us to Israel, we’d eat ice cream, they’d buy us new clothes,…” he recalls, sitting amidst his shops’ vacant hangers.
“After 1967, many Jews lived in Gaza. It was normal. My father had Jewish friends,” Wa’el says.
But when the first Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation (the Intifada) happens in 1987, Israeli military control tightens and Wa’el’s family loses touch with his Jewish grandparents.
“My mother wasn’t told when her mother died, she only found out later,”he says of Khaya’s death in Israel.
Having told the story of his roots, he turns to the present.
“We’ve been sitting here without work for years, since they closed the borders,” he says of the siege and pre-siege closures. “We used to get all our goods via Israel, every week we’d have new clothes. I’m thinking of bringing clothes in through the tunnels now. It’s expensive, but what else can I do?”
But quickly, he steers the conversation back to his passion: history, and recounts the history of Gaza’s inhabitants.
“I love to read,” he says, explaining.
It’s a warm spring day and his empty shop has been an oasis, of hospitality, knowledge, easy friendship and memories. Wa’el tries to refuse money for two scarves, but finally accepts at the lowest price he will take.
“You are guests here,” he says, echoing the words of so many and insisting we return to visit.