the ride back from deir al balah took the coastal road, always a pleasure. crammed beside me in the 7 passenger, decades-old mercedes was a lively elderly woman in her hand-stitched robe and traditional light, white, stitched headscarf. some elderly women and men still wear these traditional clothes, though most Palestinians in Gaza nowadays are dressed in jeans, trousers, sneakers, sandals… that could be found pretty much anywhere….
she’s talking and i try to reply to her, but she’s hard of hearing. anyway she’s content enough keeping the conversation going herself. she shares the monologue with the young man pinned in on her other side.
i realize my efforts are pointless, so just watch the scenery slide by. past the many homemade tents on the beach giving shade on a friday afternoon outing. past the humble little hilltop cafe whose prices barely cover the cost of the coffee, lemons or fruit they’ve bought to serve. that view from that cafe beats any fancy Gaza City cafe’s any day, as do the prices and friendliness of the family who runs it.
we swoop downhill into wadi gaza, famous once for the flourish of trees growing near the fresh river streaming to the sea… famous now for the stench which precedes it.
khara!! my seat-mate says loudly. she can get away with it, she’s older, a bit wild. khara, rehit khara, she says a couple of more times.
shit, it smells like shit.
and its true, it does smell like waste, the run-off point for various surrounding villages and camps’ sewage…straight into the sea. like driving through a long-overdue to be cleaned fishtank.
whenever the taxi i’m in passes over wadi gaza bridge, i reduce my breathing to the bare minimum for the 20 or so seconds it takes to get through the worst of the stench.
i always marvel that there are houses in and flanking the wadi (valley), that fishermen walk on the beach beside the black sludge poisoning the sea, that children herd their families sheep and goats around the sewage-reeking valley. a year and a half ago, the valley flooded when, Palestinian emergency services say, Israel opened the floodgates of one of it’s dams without warning the Palestinians in Gaza.
in either direction, usually within a few kilometres the memory of that stench is replaced by a fresh smell, that of corn being roasted by the roadside, 1 shekel a cob.
on the beach yesterday i was suddenly shy with the camera, didn’t photograph the sweet-potato vendor. i always want to, usually don’t have a camera on me… and yesterday just balked. his horse pulls a cart fixed with an old barrel converted into a roasting oven. roasted sweet potatoes also go for 1 shekel a piece; although the days are incredibly hot, somehow roasted sweet potatoes at the sea work.
last week on the friday taxi ride from gaza to deir, our minivan taxi stops along a sandy gaza city lane for a minute while the driver drops something off at home.
its a poor area, i’ve walked that lane before and noticed the half-level houses made of corrugated tin and scraps and covered with asbestos roofing.
emad always flags this particular driver down when possible. the driver doesn’t speak much, focuses on his task, but has a calming way about him, like he’s going about his life as he should, despite his hard circumstances.
as we drive, pass through wadi gaza (breath held) and up the hill past my sea-overlooking cafe, a gazaowi tuktuk passes us. there are actually a handful of ‘real’ tuktuks…they look the part. and there are a lot more converted tuktuks: motorcycles with steel racks welded on a trailer behind them.
as we near deir al balah, with its numerous, famously tall and graceful palm trees, we pass our friends simple beach cafe: a wood-framed, palm-thatched space serving mint tea and coffee just 50 metres off the beach. simple pleasures.
beside the cafe sits the fish-seller, a woman i noticed 2 years ago, always roadside with her bucket of fish for sale, sitting dignified on a small plastic stool, probably sitting that way all day, every day.
the other day, i went to see jaber and leila at their border-side farm in faraheen, east of khan younis. it’s the farm that has endured 3 major israeli military invasions (not to mention those ‘minor’ ones, the routine shooting from israeli military jeeps and towers along the border roughly 500 metres away, and the ‘sweeps’ every week or two, when towering israeli military bulldozers accompanied by tanks bulldoze the land along the border). jaber and leila always replant, and so i took a tour to see what was growing anew: corn, watermelon, onions, eggplants, mint and merrimea and zataar, tomatoes, zucchini… years ago there’d have been wheat, various fruit, nut and olive trees and chicken eggs to add to the list.
jaber and leila, two fiesty, spirited friends, were their usual generous selves, serving tea, coffee, tea, and insisting lunch…which i had to pass on for lack of time. i won’t get away with that again; i know next time they’ll pin me down and make me stay for a meal (which is not a bad thing; leila is a fantastic cook and the meals are always based on what they’ve grown).
jaber shows me some fish he’s got growing in his demolished cistern (the IOF invasion in may 2008 destroyed his pump and the motor which worked it; the water has been stagnant and algaeic green since). i doubt the fish will survive for want of fresh water, but why not try.
on the way back from the north last tuesday, my ride passes through sheyjayee, gaza city’s eastern neighbourhood. i get out to buy some market eggs. heading back to the taxi area, i have to bite my tongue to keep from laughing: two gruffish looking policemen are stooped over a platter of bright-coloured, sugary candies shaped like worms, amazingly focused on their task. it’s the contradictions here that make life in gaza so interesting.
my taxi heads west, along gaza city’s main street, omar mukthar.
taxis here stop whenever someone flags them down. if a taxi is going where they want, the passenger hops in with the rest of us. if not, usually the taxi driver tsks and drives off, another beat-up taxi will stop for him soon enough.
a man gets in the passenger seat, talking on his cell phone. he pays his 1 shekel and continues his conversation. dressed well, obviously works somewhere. i love the mix of passengers you find in taxis, from the well-dressed to the elderly to non-Palestinians like me.
i love the taxi system, an unending stream of cars, some looking like taxis, most looking like cars, some going your way, some not. and whether beat-up, crack-windshielded, door handles fallen off, reeking of exhaust or moderately new, they all charge the same price. you never really need to call for a taxi, just step out on the road and get your ride.
while i walk most places, sometimes i inevitably need a taxi. hot as the days are, the rides almost always prove interesting.