It’s been too long since I’ve seen the Abu Leila’s, living in a tent in Gaza’s northern Al Attatra region. The last time I visited, 31 December, the land was drenched with long-needed rain, their tent leaky and sagging beneath the water’s weight.
Only the oldest daughter is ‘home’ when I stop in, parents Saleh and Arafia having gone to the bombshell of their pre-Israeli war on Gaza home not far from the tent camp.
But the girl, just 10 years, is happy to play host, taking on the persona and role of an adult as Palestinian children so easily do, living lives of adults from a young age.
She offers tea, tries to insist I stay for a meal, and reminisces on the last time I had visited. Something like “my goodness, that was so long ago. Where have you been? We missed you terribly…”
It’s been 16 months now that the 14 person family has been crammed in their nattered tent, their home one of the over 21,000 destroyed or seriously damaged by Israeli bombings and attacks. Over a year of trying to move on with life… but stuck in a tent, sweltering and shivering through the seasons, trying to keep clean, trying to pay the bills when all sources of income have been destroyed and bombed items, clothes, school materials… need to be replaced.
But this one is a star, she is vibrant, she is thrilled to momentarily be the head of the tent. She sashays, she prattles, she carries on with the excessive energy of a child smattered with the knowing voice of an adult.
And when I leave, she intones the words of any Palestinian I’ve met so far: “Please come back soon, stay overnight, don’t be so long in between visits. God be with you.”
Mousa has gotten married, and his wife is a lovely young woman with a confident, warm smile.
It’s been since December since I visited.
“I tried to call you, many times.” My old number, and I didn’t think to pass on my new one to him.
“I wanted you to come to my wedding, 3 months ago.”
Damn the luck. What would have been more beautiful than to see a man whose family life has been shattered start a new one?
Yet he is in the same house in the Samouni neighbourhood of Zaytoun where war crimes happened and his parents were murdered.
It’s hard to believe how many Palestinians remain, by necessity and ties to the land, in the same home Israeli soldiers have occupied, attacked, destroyed, and murdered in.
His siblings are all at school but one, Islam, who has gone and returned and now sits with her cherubic grin, chiding me for being away too long.
His new wife is sizzling onions and garlic and I sense a meal offer coming on: but I’ve just left from a meal and have more families to visit.
It’s a five minute effort to convince them that I cannot eat with them today and will return much sooner to share this meal.
The walls scratched with vulgar graffiti by the occupying IOF have finally been lightly whitewashed, as have their crimes, but the insults peek through: hatred, bullying, racism, death threats, Zionism…
And I leave this family with many recent martyrs’ photos on their walls with the same amazement as always when Palestinian resilience and warmth overwhelms me.
Mohammed Kahawish, the slightly forgetful but completely charming elderly man I met a year or so ago as he scavenged the streets for recyclable plastics, is as charming as ever.
Another too-long-in-between-visits-visit, with surprised faces and exclamations of “we thought you’d gone”…
They’ve always thrown open their bent aluminum door when I knock, always ready with lemonade and/or coffee and/or anything they have to offer.
This time it was a flutter of welcomes and smiles, lemonade, and freshly baked spinach rolls.
I assumed they were from a bakery, though tastier.
“No,” clucks Miriam, “they are better: I made them.”
She livens considerably as she goes into a detailed explanation, enhanced by enthusiastic hand motions, of how to make the dough, the spinach filling, and how to roll and bake them.
Her cooking instructions are a mixture of Palestinian culture, experience, common sense, and wisdom from living under siege: “when the first pan is nearly baked, move it to the bottom shelf. But put the second pan in immediately. Gas is expensive, you know.”
Miriam urges me to come back another day soon, to bake with her. She apologizes for not having meat for the spinach rolls, can’t afford it, and while the vegetarian side of my brain is relieved, I know they don’t chose to abstain.
Mohammed tells me he is still on a waiting list for eye surgery in Jerusalem (he has told me that since I met him last year), that there are now only 600 people in front of him, or maybe 700…
His leg has healed more from his bicycle fall and he’s able to walk around more. Though I haven’t seen him gathering recyclables recently, I’m sure that he is bearing with it, out of necessity.
I leave with their words, always repeated: “this is your house, come back any time.”