As we pass under the “Welcome to Gaza” sign, a ripple of excitement goes through the bus and everyone grabs their telephones to record the moment. After three hours spent killing time at the Rafah Border Crossing while the Egyptian officials decided whether they would allow us through (the Egyptian Ministry of Interior didn’t grant us permission to travel to Gaza until the day before our scheduled departure) and eight hours of driving from Cairo, it feels like a victory to have made it through at all. Two writers from our group were refused entry and have had to drive back to Cairo to find the necessary papers. All of us were aware when we agreed to come that there was a strong possibility that we might not be allowed into Gaza at all. This was my third trip with PalFest, the literary roadshow that began in 2008 with a journey to the West Bank. The aim of the Palestine Literary Festival is to break the isolation of ordinary Palestinians, to make contact through cultural events, readings, recitals, and workshops.
As we travel on towards Gaza City, night falls over a landscape that appears eerily normal. And why shouldn’t it? We had crossed a line in the sand.
On each occasion when I have travelled to Palestine, an element of uncertainty has hung over the whole venture. As we travel on towards Gaza City, night falls over a landscape that appears eerily normal. And why shouldn’t it? We had crossed a line in the sand. The scruffy mix of fields and gray block houses could be located anywhere in Egypt. The occasional row of date palms or narrow grove of olive trees hint at the rural idyll that foundered in the not-too-distant past. The first reminder that we are not in Egypt comes with the gas stations that are flagged early by queues of vehicles tailing back along the road, three cars wide. Since 2008 there has been an almost complete ban on fuel imports. Sporadic and unpredictable supplies explain the queues and the power cuts, some of which last up to twelve hours.
What is striking about the Gaza Strip is the lack of a visible military presence. In the West Bank at checkpoints and crossings, Israeli Defense Force soldiers in green fatigues strut about with their automatic rifles at the ready. They are young, some of them in their teens, and they sling their weapons over their shoulders like guitars as they demand papers and issue orders. At the Kalandia Crossing between Jerusalem and Ramallah in 2008, I was caught in the labyrinth of bars and turnstiles, trying to get through the metal detectors and x-ray machines. As I shuffled forward, voices yelled in Hebrew over loudspeakers. What they were yelling and to whom was unclear. I watched a middle-aged man, clearly in pain, being turned back; his wife and young daughter, who were trying to get him to a hospital for treatment, were weeping. In Hebron, the army patrols the streets in full combat gear, weighed down by helmets, body armour and radio sets, while kids on bicycles circle round them in the manner of children everywhere.
In Gaza, a narrow strip of land forty kilometers long and on average less than a quarter of that in width, the military presence is not visible but it is there all the same. From the rooftop terrace of our hotel in Gaza City I stare at a row of harsh white spotlights far out at sea. It takes me a while to work out that these banks of lights are marker buoys. Over the years the distance a Palestinian fisherman can go in search of a decent catch has been whittled down from the twenty-nautical-mile limit established in the Oslo Accords to the three-mile limit imposed by the Israelis as of January 2009. This makes 85 percent of Gaza’s waters inaccessible to local fishermen. Of the ten thousand local fishermen in 2000, there are only around 3,500 today. The lights have the effect of drawing the fish to the surface, which means that the best fishing is as close to the line as possible. It’s a dangerous task. Israeli patrol ships run circles around the smaller fishing boats so as to tip them over. They regularly fire upon fishing boats with live ammunition.
The historian Ilan Pappé described what is happening in Gaza as “slow-motion genocide.” In theory, the occupation ended in 2005 when twenty-one settlements were dismantled and the Israelis withdrew from the strip. Most of the buildings were demolished during the withdrawal, though some settler houses and even part of a university remain. The blockade of the Gaza Strip, though, is in its fifth year. The import and export of goods, the movement of people by air, land or sea, fuel, medicine, and water, are all severely restricted in reaction to Hamas’s gaining control of the Palestine Legislative Council. Israel has been aided in this by the Egyptians who are still reluctant to be seen supporting Hamas, although this may change under the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood president.
The New York Times has described the blockade as amounting to “collective punishment.” Certainly it has made life difficult for the 1.5 million people living in Gaza, 49 percent of whom are officially unemployed. According to the United Nations, living standards have dropped to 1967 levels. The irony is that the blockade has strengthened Hamas. The near complete ban on exports and the fuel shortages have led to a shrinking economy, and in turn to more revenue from clandestine trade done through tunnels running under the Egyptian border, all of which are controlled by Hamas.
I had followed the news, read about the political infighting, the consequences of the blockade, the futility of the Qassam rocket attacks, the devastating impact of Operation Cast Lead, and the assault on the Freedom Flotilla. Gaza had become synonymous with the blockade. It embodied, more than the West Bank, the idea of the world’s largest open air prison. Of the lives of the people who lived there, of course, I knew very little.
The Islamic University is the best funded of the four universities in Gaza. It is also the only one that is not secular. Our first day, we are given a tour of the segregated campus, our male guides giggling as we cross into the women’s section. The grounds are neatly tended and decorated with trees that stand between big, modern buildings, including a three-story library. Two of the buildings were bombed in 2009 but have been fully rebuilt. There are no signs of destruction or shortage. When I ask our guides about this I am told that they have “their own ways” of bringing in materials.
The jilbabs and the headscarves give the impression that these women live sheltered lives. In contrast, though, they speak with a frankness I admire.
In a cramped lecture hall two other writers and I find ourselves facing a full house of mostly young women, nearly all of them wearing colorful headscarves and austere grey or black jilbabs. The fluency of English varies, and although they all display a great deal of enthusiasm about our visit it is unclear what is expected of us. This session was originally billed as a workshop, but after a round of introductions, I see that what the students really want to do is talk.
Many of the questions directed at us convey a concern about our motives. Why have we come here? What did we expect to find? I sense some degree of distrust, even resentment. The jilbabs and the headscarves give the impression that these women live sheltered lives. In contrast, though, they speak with a frankness I admire. Many of them already write. A couple of girls come forward to read out their poems. They do not wait for permission to speak. Like students in classrooms everywhere, they want to hear how we managed to get published and how they should go about getting their stories out into the world. They are witnesses to a unique situation which lends urgency. At the end, as we are about to leave, more of them crowd around still pressing for an answer to the question, “What do I have to do to write?” I repeat the same advice I have always given in similar situations: To write, all you have to do is write and keep writing.
During the day, when the lights are gone the sea appears empty and serene. Up on the hotel terrace they are playing Vivian Beshara’s Arabic version of the title song from the film Titanic. Over the syrupy tune a series of cracks echo in the distance—sonic booms made by Israeli fighter jets flying overhead. In quiet moments I imagine I can hear the faint zenana or buzz of a drone high above. On a tour of the town we stop by the Al Andalus tower, a local landmark, which was hit in 2009 during Operation Cast Lead, an Israeli attack. The apartment building, one of the tallest in Gaza, was shelled from the sea by an Israeli warship. It is one of the more spectacular examples of the devastation caused during the twenty-two-day assault. Concrete floors hang on twisted iron rods strung like a collapsing tower of cards suspended in mid-air. When I am told they are planning to restore it, I can hardly believe it.
There are other relics, flattened buildings, scattered here and there, but considering the scale of the damage (the U.N. estimates seventeen thousand buildings were partially destroyed; four thousand completely; around six hundred thousand tons of concrete rubble were removed), it is remarkable how much has been rebuilt. In Sarajevo, bullet holes and shrapnel scars were still visible on apartment buildings ten years after the end of the war, almost as if they were afraid that what they had suffered would be forgotten. Here, in Gaza, despite the lack of resources Palestinians build and rebuild, as if their existence as a people depends on the physical manifestation of their presence. To an outsider like myself they appear trapped in a hopeless cycle of repair and destruction.
The coast road to Rafah runs alongside a thin strip of sand fencing off the sea. The water, our guide tells us, is not clean enough to bathe in. The reason becomes clear at Museirat where the overpowering stench of raw sewage hits me as we drive by. Water is a serious issue in Gaza. The Coastal Aquifer is oversubscribed and not replenished sufficiently to provide clean water. The destruction of water treatment plants and the ban on the import of spare parts means that large quantities of untreated sewage are regularly released into the water system, polluting the aquifer which in turn brings health problems.
This is valuable land, rich and fertile. Gazans grow guavas, oranges, and grapes. We pass groves of palm trees, which give the name to the Deir al-Balah refugee camp. We pass a school built by the U.N. and painted in its colors, blue and white, in an effort to protect it from air attack. There are no buses and some of the kids have to walk for thirty minutes to get to school. From time to time the Israelis open the river’s floodgates to cut off the road. The same policy applies to stop Gazans visiting the West Bank and vice-versa. Within the West Bank Palestinians registered in Bethlehem, for example, are not allowed to visit Jerusalem, a distance of six miles (nine kilometers).
In Rafah we visit the Rachel Corrie Center, where activities are coordinated and medical help is provided for children. Corrie was an International Solidarity Movement activist who died in Gaza in 2003 while using her body to protect Palestinian homes from being demolished by Israeli bulldozers; she was crushed. Many kids have nowhere to go outside school. Here they have the chance to act in plays, to draw and to paint. Children with behavioral problems are identified and counseled by child psychologists.
From the Center we walk to the edge of town to see the frontier zone, marked by a tattered tent and a scruffily dressed man holding a battered Nokia and an AK47. Many of the houses along the border were destroyed by the Israelis in 2009. Some kids trail alongside us and cheerfully point out which houses have been rebuilt. To them, everything happened zamaan, as in a long time ago. Such is the memory of a young child. One day they will learn the details, but for the moment it is all just a game.
The street ends abruptly in a storm of fine sand whipped up by heavy lorries that grumble out of the dust clouds and disappear down into the streets beyond. The guard post is a shelled ruin occupied by a handful of police officers whose meal we have just disturbed. A tin bowl of beans and a handful of round loaves lie on a bare table. There are no walls, no doors, nothing to stop the harsh wind. Some fuss is made over our cameras, which we duly put away as they speculate what to do with a group of tourists. The ground beneath our feet is honeycombed with tunnels. There are rumored to be a thousand of them, varying from 200 meters to almost a kilometer, used to bring all manner of goods in illegally from Egypt. The sheer scale is staggering.
Through the swirling dust I can make out a cluster of shelters, some the shattered ruins of bombed buildings, flattened like sandwiches. Others are flimsy constructions of iron bars and flapping canvas. A group of men go by on the trailer of an empty lorry. They wave cheerfully as they bump past then get swallowed up by the billowing sand. We have become the spectacle. Grinning phantoms emerge from the shadows. These are tunnel diggers. There is something medieval about these men, coated from head to foot in white powder that paints every eyelash and wrinkle, earlobe and hair. They stare at us as we go by.
The sand feels soft underfoot as we traipse over to a shelter where we are invited to peer down into a well of darkness. It is about four meters in diameter and twenty-four meters deep. The only way down is a seat improvised from two planks of wood looped together and winched up and down with an electric motor. It sways in the air motionless. “The power has gone,” one of the men explains, without saying if there is anyone down there in the dark waiting to come up.
Some tunnels are only a meter square, while others are tall enough for people to walk in. Cars are brought through in sections, although there is one tunnel rumored to be big enough to drive straight through at twenty thousand dollars a go. The tunnels collapse on a regular basis, which is not surprising considering the softness of the sand. According to a leaked U.S. embassy cable, the Egyptians completed a steel wall to stop the tunneling two years ago, but it seems to have had little effect. Occasionally the Egyptians are said to use poison gas to clear the tunnels. Smuggling is a risky enterprise but it is well compensated. The boys working the smaller tunnels earn a hundred dollars a day. The men operating the winches earn half of that. They bring in everything from medicine to sacks of cement. Fuel is pumped through a rubber hose.
Enormous articulated lorries lumber by, piled up high with soft drinks and snacks. Hamas earns a tax on everything that comes through. Opinion is divided about the tunnels. Many Gazans are against them because they earn money only for a small group of people on both sides of the border. And, because they can be used to smuggle weapons, the tunnels provide Israel with a perfect alibi to maintain the blockade as well as an excuse to attack at any moment.
On that last evening on the little stage at the Qasr al-Basha cultural center, the power is suddenly cut and the mic dies… In the end we are escorted back to our bus and allowed to return to the hotel. We take as many of the audience as we can manage.
On the way back to the hotel we stop at a square in town where a mass hunger strike is taking place in protest of the thousands of Palestinians being held without trial in Israeli jails. The square is filled with flags and banners. Voices screech from loudspeakers. Later there is a meeting about the Boycott and Divestment Society, which seeks to put pressure on Israel through an international campaign to boycott Israeli products, academic institutions and participation in sporting events. Inspired by the movement that helped end apartheid in South Africa, the BDS campaign aims to connect with ordinary people, cutting out the politicians in between.
On our last evening the closing PalFest event is shut down by security forces. It’s not clear who we have offended, but everything points to an accumulation of distrust. Gatherings in which men and women congregate in the same public space are frowned upon by Hamas. Two nights before, in what was the highlight of our roadtrip, the hugely popular and highly talented Egyptian group Eskenderella, who are traveling with us, gave a concert that was rapturously received. Eskenderella’s songs of revolution have been a fixture in Cairo over the last year, providing a soundtrack to the events in Tahrir Square. The local PalFest organizers were asked to split the concert hall, men on one side, women on the other, but they refused. Many of our authors are Egyptian, and the anti-authoritarian spirit has been running high at reading events and in interviews. It is perhaps not surprising that Hamas was made uncomfortable. In any case, on that last evening on the little stage at the Qasr al-Basha cultural center, the power is suddenly cut and the mic dies. A moment later a plainclothes officer runs across to snatch a camera from a young woman. What follows is a charged confrontation with an absurdly large crowd of armed police and plain-clothed security officers. In the end we are escorted back to our bus and allowed to return to the hotel. We take as many of the audience as we can manage. Many of them are nervous about possible repercussions, especially after we depart. Security men photographed much of the audience. Back at the hotel the terrace is converted into an impromptu venue and the concert continues long into the night with poetry readings and songs.
The following day, on the road back towards the Rafah Crossing, I find myself noting down everything I can see through the windows of the bus: sheep grazing within the walls of a house; faded murals of militants clutching guns and olive branches; plastic balls decorated like watermelons; old Turkish headstones; Barça shirts; camels; the rebuilding of bombed out bridges, broken pottery. It is an effort to understand what I have seen over the last four days, to try and hold on to it for just a little longer. When I glance at my notebook later, the letters shaky from trying to write inside a moving vehicle, it looks like the trembling ravings of a madman.
Jamal Mahjoub’s stories and essays have appeared in the Guardian, The Times Literary Supplement, Le Monde, Die Zeit and other publications around the world. His novels have been widely translated and won a number of awards. He is a contributing editor at Guernica magazine and has recently begun a new life in crime fiction as Parker Bilal. The Golden Scales was published by Bloomsbury USA in 2012.