An iron wall on the right, a line of rubble from destroyed homes on the left, one of many toxic untreated human waste in the foreground are all that remains in this part of the Block “O” refugee camp in Rafah. A mobile IDF watchtower in the distance looms over the remaining homes. (Mark Zeitoun)
Laura Gordon, The Electronic Intifada, 21 August 2003
And outside, they are shouting again, men’s voices fighting to stay afloat like it was an ocean they were drowning in. Down the street in Al-Awda Square, Hamas has been demonstrating since 8 pm between Christmas lights in bright colors and loudspeakers. Further down, the shooting from the tower dominiates the night, louder than angry men, louder than demonstrators. Earlier tonight, an ambulance’s urgent wail, me holding my breath praying. Death is so close now you can smell it. Already it has come like a rain storm beginning in Hebron, like the time I watched rain come towards me from across a lake and ran toward the forest and my feet were not faster than the rain.
In the West Bank, tanks close in, six dead in a day. In Gaza, five missiles from an F-16 assassinate Ismael Abu Shanab, a non-militant spokesperson for Hamas; kill his two bodyguards, and injure 20 bystanders, 5 seriously. F-16s paint the sky everyday, blue and white like clouds. But so far in Rafah, a military tower is shooting in the air, bullets have remained abstract in their threat, have not collided today with flesh, but still I see death everywhere, in the faces of my friends and of strangers in the streets. Shouting upstairs as the images paint TV.
29 August 2003 — In my haste to leave the Internet cafe, I forgot to mention in my last letter that just as we were leaving the hospital, one 17-year-old was dying in the ICU from the injuries he had received from the missile in Jabaliya Camp the day before, and crowds of people were flowing into the waiting room like rivers, falling all over each other and you could hear the sounds of hearts breaking.
And last night back in Rafah, I slept so well that I didn’t hear the two five minute bouts of gunfire near us or the two tank shells that landed near us, but woke up anyway with my whole face clenched and my head pounding which is how I wake up everyday for no reason I can discern, woke up to hummous and foole and shakshuka, bread warmed directly on the burner, don’t mess around here, Al-Jazeera playing war scenes in India and Iraq and Palestine; Al-Jazeera covering the blackout in London, CNN offering American talking heads going on and on in that disinterested stance that even seeps through the overdub.
Abu Ahmed’s shrill and disgruntled (existing for itself only) voice, demanding we find our way outside to where the air is softer, under the fig tree; to where Sally’s eleven-year-old legs all wrapped up in green bellbottoms are climbing the wall to find the freshest figs, deep purple like red grapes, insides full of erotic pink fibers disolving like sugar. Sally bickering tirelessly with her father over figs.
Can I tell you about this family? Can I tell you that I managed to sleep through high caliber gunfire and tank shells but wake up promptly at 7am every morning when the members of the family start hollering at each other about breakfast, and that they only cool down after they’ve eaten and after they’ve had tea and settled down to watch TV and climb fig trees and sit around all day together chatting and poking fun at each other. Abu Ahmed hollers all day I think just to holler and not because he’s deaf in one ear.
1 September 2003 — On Saturday we went to Khan Younis to visit the martyr’s tent of Hamdi Kallakh, who had been assassinated two days earlier, decapitated by an Apache helicopter missile at the age of 35. We were led to the house where women were crowded together on cushions, filling two small rooms. We walked in, murmering condolences in stilted Arabic, not knowing what to say. We asked about his mother, but she was unconscious from grief and from fasting. She hadn’t eaten since her son was killed.
So we walked on; The 20-something widow he had left behind was sitting in the far corner and lifted her niqab to greet us, revealing a soft face with large cheekbones. Everyone seemed a bit confused about what we were doing there. We sat down in a corner where people made room for us, between aging women, eyes wide and bottomless, coffee brown skin in delicate folds like the pages of old books. They wore looks of disbelief and soft white cotton scarves wrapped loosely around their faces, folding into soft hills over their full, fat bellies, and below that, heavy black jilbabs down to their bare callussed old feet.
We were served traditional coffee and dried dates, the bitterness of a person’s passing followed by the sweetness of Allah’s patience.
A younger woman with a round face and thin lips began to translate. She wanted to know what we had to say about the helicopters that had killed her cousin and why Bush was sending tanks to their borders and their cities. Bush and Sharon is one word here. More than a few times I’ve heard people say America to mean Israel without thinking. The old women pitching in their frustrations with the rest. Us agreeing with them, us angry out loud with them. At some point they heard our anger and it brought us toether into the room.
The young widow sat silently through all of this, lips smiling faintly, removed from the whole weight of the room and the agitated women, nursing her 4-month-old child, the youngest of seven. Someone brought in shaheed posters for us to examine. About the M-16 he was holding, they said his wife had pleaded with him to leave it so the army wouldn’t kill him and leave her and their children behind to pick up the pieces; but now that he’s been murdered by that army she’s proud and says she’ll give that gun to his oldest son.
But outside it’s the first day of school and you wouldn’t notice the grief. The streets explode with children in bright new uniforms, pinstripes and fresh blue polo shirts and shiny white mendeels are lining the streets in row formation. The entire youth population of Rafah in mass exodus in the eleven-AM sun.
2 September 2003 — And as students rush through the steets from their second day of school, we drive past them to the pale white of the shaheed tent of Ayya Mahmood, shot deat three mornings ago at the age of eight. What can be said about that. White plastic chairs hold men in long lines under the shade of the tent. Above, a mural hangs from the wall, a tree bleeds as it cradles the Haram al-Sharif (Dome of the Rock) in its branches.
We follow Ayya’s uncle up a pathway of stairs and through the narrow maze of refugee camp streets, through rusting doors. We sit with the mother and some men from the family who have gathered. Her retelling of the story is calm, unemotional until she breaks into shaking, silent sobs at the end.