In his memoir The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary, Abu Saif chronicles everyday civilian life in Gaza, shattered by Israel’s 2014 invasion. Chronicling his own family’s struggle to survive, he provides a rare window into the texture of a community and the realities of a conflict too often obscured by politics. In the following passage, Abu Saif and his family are celebrating Eid, the conclusion of Ramadan. What kind of Eid will his family have, he asks, when warfare has displaced so many other Gazans?
Today is Eid. After a month of fasting, Eid is like a long sigh of relief. The kids get up early, woken by the hymns and chanting from the minarets of all the surrounding mosques, whilst the sun is still struggling to get out of bed in the east. Normally at Eid, the kids play in the streets, excited by the pocket money they’ve just received from their parents. This is always the single largest amount of money they’ll receive all year. They rush out and buy toys, go to the fairground, fly between the heaven and earth. Eid is what every child waits for all the year. It was always a favorite moment for me when I was growing up. It’s exactly the same for my kids.
Last night, we all spent about two hours debating what kind of Eid we were going to have. The kids all wanted to celebrate Eid as it should be. This means buying them new clothes, having their hair cut (even if they had it cut a week ago), letting them buy toys and other things to entertain them and permitting them to blow their pocket money on sweets and chocolates or paying for rides. “It’s Eid!” they insist. “It’s Eid!” That’s their logic. Our argument, Hanna’s and mine, is that there are many children who lost their parents and cannot celebrate Eid this evening and it is very upsetting for them to see other children celebrating while they cannot. “What about the displaced people camping in the schools,” we say, “who don’t have anywhere to live anymore, who don’t even have the means to wash themselves properly?”
After various excuses and justifications, I realize our arguments are falling on deaf ears. In the end, it’s not their fault. They’ve looked forward to this all year. I succumb to their pressure and agree to buy them one new piece of clothing each, that’s all, and maybe a haircut. But no sweets, no toys.
Last night, I spent three hours walking through Jabalia Souq. There was a rumor about an extended truce for another twenty-four hours, starting at 2 p.m. You need to believe some of these rumors just to keep yourself going. But deep inside, your instincts tell you that any truce or cease-fire will ultimately prove to be a joke. You can get a whole range of answers to the question “Will there be a truce?” And each answer falls within what we might call analysis. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry’s opinion is an “analysis.” Nobody has any real information. People will tell you, “I heard so-and-so saying this and that,” or, “I think the situation reveals such and such.” The only conclusion you come to is that Gazans no longer care if a truce has been declared or not; they want to have their own truce, even if the pilot of the F16 doesn’t want one, or the drone operator sitting at his desk doesn’t want one, or the captain of the warship doesn’t like the idea of his prey moving freely in the streets. The answer as to whether there’ll be a truce tomorrow is no longer relevant. They will have their own truce on Eid. They will enjoy Eid as much as they can. At 3 p.m. yesterday, a house in my father’s neighborhood was struck by shrapnel. As it happened, no one was home. Only a neighbor passing down the street at the time was injured. Of course, such information was jumped on by Hanna as a reason against me taking the kids to my father’s place last night to let them play in the Internet café next to his house.
Yesterday, the souq had been full of people, mainly buying clothes. A few shops were open, selling sweets and chocolates; it was so packed I could hardly move. When the souq is like this, you find yourself being carried along automatically by the pressing of others. I tried to buy the dried, salty fish you’re supposed to have on the morning of Eid. This is the custom. The fish is dried and stuffed with salt months before and on Eid morning, you fry it and cook tomatoes in the oil left over from the fish. After a month of fasting, you need a salty meal to encourage you to start drinking water again frequently. The key to everything is how you cook the fish. That’s the secret.
We fry the fish this morning but we have no bread to eat it with. All the bread in the fridge is rotten as there’s been no electricity for three days in a row. Only last night, at ten o’clock, did it return for just eighty minutes. This morning, it’s back to square one. Everything in the fridge has to be thrown out: meat, chicken, even vegetables. Until last night, the bread was fine, but this morning we have to go hunting for new bread. My father-in-law agrees to set off on his bike to the bakery in the center of the camp. Luckily, it’s open and he returns after less than one hour of queuing, laden with warm loaves.
I haven’t drunk cold water for three days. Even in the supermarket, you can no longer find cold drinks. The larger supermarkets have their own generators but they don’t waste the power on cold drinks. My friend Faraj told me that Wafi brought some ice from relatives living in an area that still has electricity. He gave Faraj some. I asked him if he could spare me some for a glass of water. I feel as if a glass of water with ice is the most precious thing I can own right now.
Tensions erupted in the souq last night. Displaced persons from Beit Hanoun felt the shops selling sweets and chocolates were being insensitive. It was a gesture of indifference towards their suffering, they claimed. Shouts were heard and then fists thrown, right in the middle of the souq, turning everything into a mess. People were divided into two camps, just as the kids and Hanna and I had been, back at home. In the end, I guess life must go on, even at a minimum. No one was badly injured and we managed to separate the aggressors on both sides and get them to explain their position on the matter. The most common greeting we’ve heard this Eid has been “Thank God Eid arrived while you are still safe.” We kept repeating this phrase to the angry people in the souq, to remind them how privileged they were to survive these massacres.
Last night, while standing with my friend Sohail in front of his house, a group of people arrived, helping an exhausted, half-dead old man. Sohail recognized him. He was a friend of his late father. He was the headmaster of a school in Bureij Camp. The Israeli army had arrested him five days ago and kept him near the Erez checkpoint with no food and just one bottle of water. For the past five days, he’s been sitting and sleeping on the bare sand. He was in a battlefield, of course, but without enjoying the privileges of someone on a battlefield, namely the right to defend himself from the bullets flying past him or the shells crashing on all sides. A few hours ago, the Israelis asked him to leave the place. He asked, “Where should I go?” “Anywhere—just away from here,” they said. He walked for three kilometers until he approached the eastern parts of Jabalia. He collapsed in the street and could not continue. But he had to keep going, to find safety. People gathered around him, splashed water on his face. Finally he opened his eyes. The first question he asked was “Where am I?” They told him that he is in Jabalia. Then he asked them to bring him to Sohail’s house.
Once inside, he took a shower and relaxed until his sons arrived after being summoned by Sohail. His story had another twist to it that his sons would tell us. After kidnapping the old father from his house in al-Mughraqa village near the Gaza Wadi, the soldiers locked the mother and two sisters in the bathroom of their house before leaving. The three women were trapped there for two days and nights, living on nothing but water from the tap, screaming all day long and receiving only echoes in return. After two days, someone heard them and broke down the door, finding them on the verge of death, on an edge—neither “protected” nor “protective”—as the Israelis would say.
Two days into the war, a baby girl was born even after her twenty-three-year-old mother had died. This is true. On the way to the hospital, the doctors in the ambulance discovered that the child was alive and that surgery could still save her. And it did. The old man, the survivor, smiled for the first time when he heard this story, realizing that it was still good to be alive.
About the Author
Atef Abu Saif was born in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip in 1973. He is the author of five novels, including A Suspended Life, which was shortlisted for the 2015 International Prize for Arab Fiction. He lives with his family in Gaza. Follow him on Twitter at @.