Fourteen years in Gaza have taught me to believe that it is inconceivable for anyone who, on a Friday morning, hasn’t been walking up and down the bustling aisles of a public market while the sweating traders, at each side of the aisle, are calling at the top of their voices in well-rhymed phrases with the prices of their commodities, it is unimaginable for them to appreciate the enormous capacity and the charming power of the small word, and that to perceive how far significant these four letters are is next to impossible.
Gaza … Fourteen years are too much for me to make me realise what an improper behaviour that is, having visited a friend, you leave your cup of tea, not untouched, but rather unfinished, your plate of candy, no matter how stuffed you are, not finished. The more heartily you devour it, the more pleased your host is.
In Gaza, you and your friends meet together at home; you take issues with them, and they yell at you, but you never yell at them; they throw the pillow behind their backs over at you, and you never respond. Meanwhile, your mother knocks on the door of the guests’ room and calls out to you from behind, rebukingly bidding you to lower your voice, although she knows it for sure that your voice was hardly audible and that it is your friends who are making all this fuss. All this fuss, in Gaza, is about the day of the “Tasha” – the Arabic for a small trip inside the town – you and your friends will be going on. The trip will be to nowhere special but to a street! A mere street. All that which makes it differ from other streets is a statue standing upright in the middle of the island separating the two sides of the road; the statue is called “Al-Jundy Al-Majhoul” The street is special, for it is a little wider than all other streets in Gaza. With all these privileges, the street, therefore, becomes a destination for you and your friends; and, for its own sake, you and your friends spend hours arguing to decide on a date where everybody is free that you can gather and visit the statue, together!
Fourteen years have taught that I should not be staying up late at night the eve of Friday. They have taught me how much I would regret if I dared to do it. The mere thought of doing it is terrifying. In Gaza, Salatu Al-Jum’a – the Arabic for The Prayer of Friday – is most sacred above all else. In Gaza, you commit vices and crimes all week long; you commit offences and misdeeds all week long; you are a thief; you have murdered someone; you have committed adultery; and you might have just taken God’s name in vain, but you do pray Salatu Al-Jum’a. In Gaza, therefore, it is never surprising why it is terrifying to think of staying up late on the eve of Friday. On Friday, in Gaza, you wake up early in the morning; and, while your mother prepares the breakfast, your sisters carry on arranging and tidying the house and its items in apple pie order unless you’ll be telling them off because you have heard your mother shout at them for not doing their job right. Shortly afterwards, when you have eaten your breakfast, you settle the matter with you brothers who is first, in preparation for the prayer, will be taking a bath, after your father finishes, and who is next!
Gaza … Not so little a word before has amassed such an immense variety of meanings in between its four letters. The city and the village, the happy and the sad, the old and the young, the large and the small, the far and the near, the poor and the poorer, and the good and the better!
Gaza is where you are never tired of shaking hands with others. You walk alongside a friend who pauses to shake hands with a friend; and you, unknowingly, find yourself shake hands with your friend’s friend; and on top of that, you answer to his inquiry about your heath: “Tamam, teslam” – I’m well, hope you are, too – as you put your hand across your chest as sort of respectable salutation.
A week or two later, while you’re hurrying along the street, alone without your friend, you hear someone hailing for you from a distance. Taken aback, you fix your eyes upon the approaching object and is soon so embarrassed to discover it was your friend’s friend— or rather your recent friend— whom you first met not very long ago to have forgotten this fast. Friendly reproaching you, he’ll part company with you, wholeheartedly inviting you to pay him a visit at home along with your mutual friend.
Nowhere other than Gaza are you wakened up in the early morning, rubbing your eyes, so infuriated with the thoughtlessness of whoever is ringing the doorbell unceasingly at this early hour, and you are struck to know it is your kind neighbour “Em Mazen”, stretching her hands with a large-sized plate on the end, piled up with fine fresh home-made bread. Enchanted by its smell, you cannot hide your admiration towards its baker. Its smell is reminiscent of the most renowned poet of the Gazans, of the Palestinians, Mahmoud Darwish as he says: ” We have on this earth what makes life worth living: April’s – hesitation, the aroma of bread at dawn … ” In Gaza, at the doorstep, Em Mazen bids you a long, very long, good morning before she hands you the plate and leaves off, cheerfully as she always is.
The very word per se is evocative of a whole lot of irreconcilable senses: of life and death, of delight and misery, of excitement and wretchedness, of hopefulness and despair, of Hamas and Fateh; and, not understandably, of Al-Ahli and Al-Zamalek. Gaza, the word, by its own nature, and upon the mere pronunciation of it, automatically conjures up two images deeply inculcated in the memory of every Gazan: one of Fares Oda, unflinchingly facing a tank and throwing it with a stone, and the other Mohammed El-Dorra, embraced by his father, and crying for his life. The word, although light as it seems, weighs heavily upon the heart of its enemies.
Gaza is nowhere on the earth and is everywhere on the earth. Gaza is a pun where critics stand incapable of uncovering its near meaning, and which they think is the far hidden meaning. Gaza is a pun where illiterate peasants, drivers, peddlers, teachers and engineers are more knowledgeable of puns than literary critics: Gaza the heart, and Gaza the city. No matter what distance alienates you from Gaza, you are never alienated. Gaza lives in the heart of those physically detached from her as well as she lives in the heart of those who live on her sand.
People in Gaza are synonymous of commendable naivety. Life is so easy and lovable. It is where my family visits yours when my children, out of boredom, suggest that we might break this monotonous routine of daily life by taking up this visit, and after a first feigning of not feeling inclined to go on with this visit, I just let go to my children’s demands and to my desires as well. Thereafter, I remember that this month is closing in its end which obviously means that I am lacking the sufficient money to buy some one or two pounds of banana so as not to visit you empty-handed, which, in Gaza, is not a very agreeable behaviour. I cancel the visit, therefore.
In Gaza, you pick up a book to kill the ennui which has been invading your life since you’ve grown up and people stopped calling you “ya walad” – come on, boy – since you were that boy who used to spend the day in the streets, having a jovial time among a convivial company. You pick up the book, and as you start reading it, you remember that you have forgotten doing something without which your reading is unworkable, or let us say you will be having a hard time carrying on reading this book. The case being so, you put the book aside, get up, and head towards the kitchen in order to make yourself a mug of strong tea with mermeria (sage). While you run your eyes over the lines one following the other, your mug of tea remains untouched. It is cold, now. The weather is awfully hot. And the sun is sinking behind the horizon in silence. And the power just goes off. A power outage. In Gaza, power outages control you and your life; they control your sleeping and your reading. In Gaza, no schedule is set without the power outages there in your mind as you set it up, humiliatingly restricting you to their oppressive rules.
A blackout as it is, you resort to a candle to light it up. In Gaza, you light up the candle. In Gaza, you read under a faint candlelight. In Gaza, you read; in the dark, you read.
Mohammed Rabah Suliman
6th May 2010