A Q&A with Atef Abu Saif
2016 marks the second anniversary the Israeli invasion of Gaza that began on July 8 and ended with a cease-fire on August 26. Novelist Atef Abu Saif kept a diary during the conflict, detailing his daily life and his family’s survival. His entries were published later as his memoir The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary. Readers now have an unforgettable first-hand account of a father raising his family in the midst of war. We caught up with Abu Saif to ask him what inspired him to set down his experiences to paper and what has changed in Gaza since the cease-fire.
Why did you decide to keep a diary of this war? What process did you use to write this diary to give it such a feel of immediacy?
I have to say that I did not write a diary to publish. I had a habit of writing sort of personal narratives now and then, to use in writing my fiction and to keep for future memoirs. I was shocked with the dialogue that took place between me and my friends (day one) at the time that the strikes started. What shocked me is our search for a meaning of what happens. All our life is a search for meaning. This search is much harder in a very uncertain context like the one in Gaza. I wrote down this dialogue while the sounds of explosions and attacks negated my wish that this was just another escalation. As I did not want to write something to be published, I continued writing down what happened with me and my family. I felt that we all might die in a minute, we might be another victim of the war. So I wrote not about the war, but about us. In case I or one of my kids died—or all of us—I wanted people to read that amid all this destruction, we were trying to live. It is a celebration of life at the time of death.
What is it like for a horrific event like war to become “positively ordinary” as you describe it in the book?
It was not an ordinary event. I was trying to live normally. Amid all of that, when people are killed without having a say in this, and when the exception is to live, the only way to overcome the obsession that you are the next victim is to live your life normally. Searching for normality is proof, though, that everything is not normal. It is not about what you intend but rather about how you are playing with this mentally. In this sense, war and your survival technique become part of your imaginary game.
How difficult was it to maintain your kids’ childhood and also answer their very real questions about mortality and life after death?
It was extremely difficult. Sometimes I felt the questions were more mature than their age. Of course, at times when you are not sure if you are alive or dead or that what you are experiencing is a dream or real, things change. Even your role changes. As a father, you are not a father in a full sense; you are a father and something else. Besides being their father, you are their fellow in danger. You do not have the answers yourself, and even if you have them you are not sure of them or they do not ease your worries. This hardens your mission. At the same time, you do not want your answers to make it difficult for them, as you want them to keep their childhood. Now, looking back at all of that, I am not sure if this was a dream or real. I know it happened, but without reading those diaries, I do not know how I made it and lived the experience. Ironically, the thing I wrote so that people know, in case of being killed that once lived there, became my only proof that I lived that.
With the knowledge that drones are always hovering over your home, how much does peacetime really feel like “peace?”
Never. Without being sure that it will come again, you keep expecting it. So that when there are no drones in the sky, you think that they are somewhere else terminating the life of somebody else, or that they are hiding well so that they surprise you. It is like my kid in the diaries asking me about the next war. His question is normal and expected. Life is just a break between two deaths. It is a break you have between two wars. So that when the war ends you start to think how long this break will last.
Has life in Gaza changed in any way since the invasion? Is the second anniversary marked in Gaza in any way?
Nothing changed. The destroyed houses are not rebuilt yet. Cement and construction materials are not allowed frequently, and if your house is destroyed you need to go through a very complicated process to get the material. Fishermen are not allowed to sail farther than three kilometers. Gaza is still besieged as before the war. When I read the diaries two days ago, I thought that I was reading about the problems that people are living nowadays, as if the past is the dictionary of our present. Politicians and political parties, of course, mark the anniversary. But the real people who mark it are those who lost their beloved or who still live in a caravan made of metal burned by the heat of the summer.
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 @.