By Atef Abu Saif
We’re OK in Gaza. Nothing brings us down except when you ask if we’re OK.
Our lives have become a well-worn routine. Fleeting shards of lightning flash in the sky, on their way to abduct a bundle of souls before they fade and disappear.
We’re OK in Gaza. Except for the hum of the drones eating away at the quiet, night and day, stubbornly reminding us of their presence. We certainly don’t deny they exist, and we’re not saying that we don’t want them. They just don’t quite understand our simple way of expressing things. We want them to be closer to us, to see how united we are, to see us standing together, rather than pick us off, one by one, for their feast, swallowing one family at a time.
The same with the F-16 that flies toward us from neighboring lands, or from the sea, to assassinate us. We’re not that dangerous. Perhaps if the worker who attached the light to the front of this plane, or the one who connected up all the wires in its cruel heart, knew our kindness, knew our love for life, perhaps then he would have held off equipping it with rockets before it travelled from that distant continent to our shores, to strike at us. Its appearance is terrifying as it circles the skies, unleashing flares. Its voice rumbles across us like the roar of a lion set on devouring a tribe of domesticated animals.
Even in most our pleasant dreams, with calm seas and peaceful waves washing over us (the least common of our dreams by far), the smell finds us.
We’re OK in Gaza. If only the gunships that sit facing our shores would stop turning our sea into a wall of flame. The few remaining fish, which we used to catch when our meager boats could venture out, have not yet given in to the violence those ships bring. Blocks of flame and fiery lava emerge from the ships’ bowels, hissing sounds, striking fear into everything: the waves of the sea, the little sardines, the sleeping sands of the beach, in the vineyards on the shore of Sheikh Ijlin, in the hearts of children crowded in their mother’s rooms. Everything. Even in most our pleasant dreams, with calm seas and peaceful waves washing over us (the least common of our dreams by far), the smell finds us.
We’re OK in Gaza. We’re just scrabbling for life amid the death that spreads wider and wider each day. The death which stalks every corner, snatches up souls from every alley, attacks every building, every street, every home. It doesn’t distinguish between old and young, between man or woman, between a child in its mother’s womb and an old man soon headed for the grave. It has become a common language among us, this death. We do not fear death per se, just the way it arrives—its cruel closing in, its ineffable descent, the painful impact when it tears us to shreds. Did this hand belong to that man, or to the man or the women who died next to him? That’s the cruelty we fear, that’s what we don’t want. As for death itself, each of us feels we’ve eluded death already, when every previous war failed to finish us off. We fear death coming painfully like an act of fate—we want it to come softly, like a gentle spell. Death itself is welcome, for every life has its pathways and endings that we have no control over. We just want to live out the life nature has in store for us, like other humans. Just like our children want to be like other ordinary children—like the ones who appear on their television screens. It’s as if there is a life for other people, and a separate life for us.
We’re OK in Gaza, even if we haven’t seen electricity for five days. Electricity isn’t important. The key thing is that there is daylight and sun to last until midday. That’s enough. As for electricity, we’ve forgotten it ever existed. We don’t ask when the electricity will come on anymore. Because it won’t. In rare cases, if the world decides to have a laugh at our expense, it comes back on for an hour, or half an hour, in the small hours of the morning, while we’re stealing what sleep we can from the mouth of worry.
We’re OK in Gaza. After all, clean water isn’t that important to human beings. We see to our needs with a bucket of it each day. We divide it among ourselves carefully. It’s enough for ten people. From it, we wash the dinner plates, wash our hands, sprinkle a little on our clothes before we spread them on the window to dry. It’s enough. If the water is running (and, as usual, there’s not enough electricity for it to make it up to the water-tank by itself) then with a little bit of courage and some energy we carry the bucket up the steep steps of the staircase, emptying it into the water-tank on the roof. Then another bucket, and a third, and another, until we can use the faucet normally, like other people. But not that normally.
If our sorrows grow less, and we laugh, then we whisper as quietly as we can, “God protect us from this laughter.”
We’re OK in Gaza. They just don’t understand that we’re a peaceful people, full of joie de vivre, who happen to be under attack from a wild animal. What else is there to do but push back with a bit of stubborn strength, scratch at the thing with your bare fingernails, while your veins still have blood in them? What else is there to do but to try to preserve the way we live and the way we want to live—a little bit of joy is enough for us. If our sorrows grow less, and we laugh, then we whisper as quietly as we can, “God protect us from this laughter.” Even laughter is too much for us, and yet our suffering is too little for those who want more of it.
We’re OK in Gaza. We diminish, day by day. The plane erases a building from the street. You wake up and find you don’t have a next-door anymore. You hear of the death of somebody you love over the phone or on the radio. You cry a little, and before your tears dry you hear of other deaths. You get used to death and crying, crying and death. The gun operator sitting in the tank that rolls towards your neighborhood has forgotten the finer points of the killing arts, and has started sending his ashen missiles with deliberate randomness, carpet-bombing the greatest possible number of people. Each hour, another one of us heads out on the dark road to death. Dozens of the departed walk along that painful path, looking behind them at the many who follow, closely behind.
We’re OK in Gaza. We’ve started to long for our morning coffee, and the smell of mint in the teacup. For the taste of za’atar spice on the breakfast plates, and the crackling of falafel in the fryer run by the old man at the end of the street. For the sound of the milk-seller on bright mornings, the sound of a girl on her way to school. For the trilling of the neighbors at weddings, and the sea breeze at nightfall. We’ve begun to forget the days, as today isn’t much different from yesterday, and neither will it differ from tomorrow.
We hang our laundry on the sidewalk railings, wash it with the saliva of life itself, and dry it with the flame of death that hangs over the neighborhood.
We’re OK in Gaza. Our houses are piles of splinters and cinders. Some of us don’t even recognize them: heaps of shadows swimming in a realm of dust. Our dreams have been crucified guiltlessly, yet we discover them again when they accost us on that winding path through the dark valley. As for our streets, they’ve become clumps of grass trampled by horses bent on leveling some fortress somewhere that doesn’t exist. We have no stake in this vendetta, yet we rake in the pain of it all the same. We are OK. In spite of everything. No house, no trace of a road, no horse waiting in the paddock. Only the rabbit, escaped from his wooden cage, gathers up the grass of the garden and builds a new house.
We’re OK in Gaza, though most of us have been forced to leave our homes and flee to live in schools. From flight to flight, from tent to tent. Some of us, who find no place to stay in the schools and no tent to enter, take up residence in the street. We spread out the earth beneath us, and cover ourselves with the sky. We hang our laundry on the sidewalk railings, wash it with the saliva of life itself, and dry it with the flame of death that hangs over the neighborhood.
We’re OK in Gaza. The ambulance is still running; its efforts are without equal. The journalist’s camera swallows up the news of our deaths, delicious platters and savory pastries to be stored away by the media agencies. In the eyes of the world, we are still the executioners, despite our blood spilling like milk from a child’s cup.
We’re OK in Gaza. If only we knew that this war would end, and that we would be rescued from it as we were rescued from the one before. We’re OK in spite of it all.
– “Hello, Gaza? Are you OK?”
– “The owner of the number you are trying to reach is dead.”
Atef Abu Saif is a Palestinian author who lives in Gaza.
Translated by Andrew Leber