Ok, I joke…because it is the only part of the crazy Levant I hadn’t seen but it does feel odd being here. It isn’t like the West Bank, where I felt instantly like I was always supposed to be there. Here, I feel very at home but I do also feel the weight of the siege…it is clearly a place people are not supposed to go. But I am so glad I came. It does not feel unsafe, I am guessing that would not have been the case whilst it was directly occupied and had settlers. I can’t imagine how awful that must have been because Gaza is not spacious…it feels full. We got to Egypt just two days ago, I spent half the day asleep after the flight and then we went exploring in Cairo.
Tahrir Square was a little anti climactic, but I suppose it isn’t exactly in use in the same way it was last year! We walked along the Nile, and took an interesting boat ride. It was a rave boat….It was also a little uncomfortable watching the tongues hanging out the mouths of the men while some girls danced full on booty popping. All the while, I had been worried about getting the work I need done actually completed when I got to Gaza. I know how difficult getting things finished fast and efficiently can be in a culture that values red tape and process and a much more relaxed speed. The ride from Cairo to the border was not as bad as I expected, but it took about hours. I fell asleep and heard the words ‘Pakistani…Pakistani!’ whilst drifting in and out of sleep…which cause me to think I was in Pakistan and really threw me off for a minute or two!
The border took about 50 minutes, and I have developed some kind of anxiety syndrome because I was on edge and I bit my poor nails like crazy. The last time I was in a border security hall is was Allenby, and we all know that ended not so well. It just reminded me how not over it I am, but I had a nice lot of people to keep me entertained and once we were through and welcomed, it was great. Many of the group are Palestinian, and one had never been to Palestine, so it was a big deal for them. I felt a little guilty that I am still whining about missing out on the West Bank, when they can’t go at all. The drive from Rafah to Gaza City felt long because I was exhausted but the hotel was lovely, it is called Al Mathaf (Museum) and is really charming and actually quite posh. The WiFi is a little pants, but I can sit in the dining area and drink yummy milkshakes whilst on the net. I also have people ask me where I am from and very warmly welcome me to Gaza…I think ‘Ahlan w sahlan’ is a phrase I don’t get tired of hearing from nice older people! :) They also play all the dabkeh songs I heard in Beddawi, so its good fun!
I was then taken for lunch by the manager of the field office, and given a giant plate of meat to eat. How three big men think I can eat the same as them, I don’t know! But it was nice.The kebabs tasted Indian! I was then taken back to the hotel to rest, and fell asleep whilst trying to get the internet working on my phone, waking up to a phone call that the field office manager, Mahmoud, was waiting for me. I got driven to an amazing place-a beach resort and play park built for boost tourism (I am guessing local!) and it had a little 3D cinema projector in the back and I watched a ‘Prehistoric Advenpure’, yes really! It was really fun, and bizarre. I made a little friend called Doa’ee who is the cutest little thing, and I was told that the board who created the resort also want cable cars from one end of the beach to the other. The entire resort gave jobs to local engineers and labourers and they did everything, even down the beach huts. Also, almost everything was smuggled in via the tunnels at the height of the siege. The peddalos were smuggled in….I never thought I was ever see a peddalo that was an act of resistance…but there you go, only in Palestine I got a special tour of the Gaza harbour, with its monument to those killed on the Mavi Marmara. The harbour area is very pretty, it has a lot of potential., and you can see the potential of Gaza left unrealised and it might be why Israel is so willing to bomb them. I was then driven back to the hotel to finally knock out and sleep until 8.30am when I was called by hotel staff and told breakfast was ready.
Today, I went to the office which is really nice and the staff were just lovely. Very kind, and welcoming and ver patient with my questions, which I know seem obvious to them. I had breakfast with all the men, and it was nice that I could understand some of the conversation, like when they were making fun of the newlywed men in the office….or when they would joke about the boss. I kept getting told to eat, and I was given a lot of coffee and tea…good thing the West Bank has given me good practice in how not to look horrified when the Arabic coffee is put in front of me! I think the meetings in the office were the only time I didn’t keep flashing back to missing the West Bank. After lunch, we visited a couple of medical related projects which was very interesting. The Public Aid Society showed me around their cardio hospital and I saw the only 3D cardio CT scanner in Palestine. I also heard about the high rates of malnutrition and the issues it causes to the general health profile of Gaza’s children, as well as high rates of congential illnesses.
Next, I visited the Hayfa Medical Centre, which now has a building but requires equipment in many floors. I spoke with the staff and also with a government engineer who spoke about his issues working with certain foreigners who wanted to help but did not respect the culture. Ah, the colonialist mindset! I was fed cake and had a lovely table of fruit and drinks and the men joked about ‘where is the siege!?’ before the lights went out and they emphatically shouted ‘there it is!’. It is amazing how fun people are here, and how strong they are in just living life and staying upbeat. We then visited a mosque built outside Gaza City where the Imam had travelled in India and Pakistan and he was very nice to me. We spoke a little Urdu and he said ‘karte karte marte hain, marte marte karte hain!’ and laughed. He invited me back for the date season and said I should visit and be there for the harvest. On my list of things I must do now- see the date harvest in Palestine! I then attended a graduation ceremony at one of universities that we have worked with, and it was really nice. The Prime Minister was in attendance and as the camera whizzed around, I thought ‘I am never making it back to the West Bank now!’ lol. Inshallah I am not on the footage anywhere!
His house is just down the road from the hotel in the refugee camp where he was born and raised. I have to say, that is impressive… Gaza itself is such a mix of different places to me….It looks in parts like Jenin, like Beddawi and also like Pakistan. It has palm trees and pretty beaches, it has refugee camps and bombed out buildings as well as high rises and fancy hotels. There are a lot of donkey carts, hence reminding me of Pakistan- due to the siege and lack of fuel. The people are very kind, which is not at all surprising but it is still very humbling and moving. I am looking forwar to seeing more of it and meeting more people, hearing their stories and of course getting through my list of outcomes!! The siege, the destruction of the wars, the poverty and the simmering insecurity is always there.
Even when you can’t see it, sitting in a nice hotel…You can feel it because although there aren’t soldiers or settlers, Israel has made its mark and Gaza has to struggle under its weight. In my mind though, I just keep thinking how I am less than 50 miles from Jerusalem (and my people- which really hurts!)…I could walk there in 18 hours but I might as well be as far as Jupiter and that is how everyone here feels, and I will leave and they will stay and keep feeling that. I still can’t quite believe this is the world we live in.