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The Drone is Blind

By Amy Caldwell

Beach in Gaza City
Beach in Gaza City

July 8 marks the anniversary of the Israeli-Gazan conflict, one of the subjects that concerns Amy Caldwell, executive editor at Beacon Press. She has acquired The Drone Eats with Me: A Gaza Diary by Atef Abu Saif, a writer and teacher from Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. Due out next year in time for the second anniversary of the conflict, Saif’s book offers a rare glimpse into the ongoing war for Western readers. Here, Amy talks about acquiring the book and what attracted her to Saif’s story. A preview from the book follows.


I was curious and interested immediately because I’d done a certain amount of publishing about issues I find troubling as someone of Jewish descent among Jews in America. Things that I find troubling are what seem to be growing racist attitudes and a right-wing hardening of politics in Israel and America. We’d recently published Alan Wolfe’s At Home in Exile, which argues that Jews are now at home in exile, that living in multicultural environments has been good for Jewish people. Of course, the ongoing tensions and war between Israel and Palestinians are on my list of topics that I’m concerned about and want to publish. But it’s hard to think about how to do it well and what needs to be done. So when editor Ra Page at Comma Press in the UK sent me an email about The Drone Eats with Me, I told him I’d love to take a look at it.

It’s a diary about living through the 2014 Israeli-Gazan conflict by Gazan writer Atef Abu Saif. Unlike other books I’d read about the conflict, it does something a little bit different. It doesn’t aim to put politics up front. The politics is there, but what’s really up front is the experience of this man, a father and a husband, during a terrifying two months. You read what it’s like for him to survive day by day, being terrified for his children, seeing animals suddenly bombed in the middle of the street, seeing the normal fabric of life threatened and torn apart. It gives you a sense of the life of normal everyday Gazan citizens—not Hamas militants—people having their lives disrupted by bombs, fire from drones, incursion, the terrible damage that was constantly around them. It also humanizes a group of people depicted mostly as mourners, not as the fully complex human beings they are, in the media.

Atef is a wonderful, vivid, and concrete writer. The Drone Eats with Me is beautifully written without being pretty. While Atef sometimes feels angry at the Israeli military, Israeli policies, at what’s going on, he also sees the insanity of the entire cycle of war.  

His diary, in fact, calls to mind some other WWII war literature. Although it’s different in many ways, it has a certain absurdist edge reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. You have this group of people jammed into a small space that can’t get out of it; in that sense, it reminds me of accounts of Jews swept into the Warsaw ghetto. Like other war literature, it veers between that sense of boredom and terror people suffer during war. On the one hand, you can’t do anything that you usually do; on the other, your boredom is shot through with moments of absolute horror and pain. Seeing those similarities, and the irony in noting that I felt a certain similarity between the Palestinians in Gaza and Jews in the Warsaw ghettos, drew me to the book.

There’s a lovely scene where Atef is outside with a couple of friends. They want to do what they usually do at night: go outside and have a smoke. They’re about to do this and suddenly realize a drone might sense the heat from the pipe, and the drone operator could mistake that as something dangerous and kill them. Drones are constantly circling and may shoot him down or shoot down a house next to him as he's walking down the street at any moment. 


Sunday 20th July

Who Will Convince Them?

So I’ve given up and decided to throw myself on the mercy of the barber. It’s too hot to have a beard and the war isn’t going to end any day soon. It may never end.

After iftar I go to Abu Annas’ place and spend an hour in his son’s barbershop, next door. I feel a whole lot fresher when it’s done. Sometimes, it’s the smallest things that give the most solace. To have a shave after nearly three weeks of discomfort and itching is a blessed relief. It was a silly idea to mark the days of the war in millimetres of hair. You have to take what comfort you can, put yourself before the symbolism. I feel born again! Zohdi is also happy that I’m finally relenting. As my barber, the sight of my long hair over the last week or so has irritated him. Now he clips me with joy. Normal service has resumed for him. When he finishes he sprays some perfume around my face, slaps aftershave on me, and smiles. ‘Now you are Atef again,’ he says.

Afterwards, I sit with Abu Annas in front of his house, as we’ve done a thousand times before. It’s only the war that’s made this ritual dangerous. We exchange concerns about the situation. Abu Annas asks his other son Mohamed to prepare the shisha. But as I start to smoke it Zohdi exclaims that it’s too dangerous to smoke shisha in the street.‘The drone might interpret the heat signal as a weapon,’ he explains.

‘What weapon? This is shisha!’ laughs Abu Annas.

‘The drone is blind,’ says Zohdi. ‘It’s a heat signal—that’s all it needs.’

Zohdi is right. Neither the drone nor its operator need an excuse to attack a group of people wasting their time trying to forget the war with a shisha pipe. But we should try not to give it an excuse.We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the drone operator; we have to think like a drone operator; we have to respect his blind following of commands, the dumb logic of his mission goals. We need to keep that operator’s unquestioning obedience ever present in our minds. Abu Annas and I relocate the conversation indoors.

It’s a long night of man-made lightning and man-made earthquakes.

And it’s a night of questions too.

Who will convince this generation of Israelis that what they’ve done this summer is a crime? Who will convince the pilot that this is not a mission for his people, but a mission against it? Who will teach him that life cannot be built on the ruins of other lives? Who will convince the drone operator that the people of Gaza are not characters in a video game? Who will convince him that the buildings he sees on his screen are not graphics, but homes containing living rooms, and kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms; that there are kids inside, fast asleep; that mobiles hang over their beds; that teddy bears and toy dinosaurs lie on the floor; that posters line the walls? Who will convince him that the orchards his craft flies over in the dark aren’t just clusters of pixels? Someone planted those trees, watered them, watched them as they grew. Some of those trees are ancient, in fact, maybe older than the Torah itself, older than the legends and fantasies he read about as a boy.

Who will convince the soldier driving a tank that his vehicle is not a toy? That what he sees from behind his wall of armour-plating are not cartoon characters but real people? That the al-Nada Towers are not just stacks of lego bricks to bring tumbling down on the carpet, but the home of hundreds of real people, civilians, including my friend Ahmed Aziz and his three children, all fast asleep.

Who will convince the navy commander at the helm of that warship we can hear that the families on the beach are not a threat to him; that peanut sellers, or teenagers on motorbikes riding along the harbour wall, are not actually carrying rocket-launchers on their shoulders. That the four boys playing football last week are not a threat to the safety of Israel?

Who will convince the international community that it has a responsibility to be objective when things like this happen?

No one, I suspect.

Gaza has no one to help it. The people have only hope and their own resilience to fall back on. If that fails us, the sea may as well rise up and flood the land.


About the Author

Amy Caldwell, Executive Editor: Amy Caldwell has been at Beacon Press for over fifteen years. She acquires in religion, with a special emphasis on the relation between politics and religion, and on how Americans live out their religious beliefs. She also acquires in science and society, as well as occasionally taking on local history, memoir, and women’s issues. Titles include The Coming Population Crash: and Our Planet’s Surprising Future by Fred PearceActs of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation by Eboo PatelQuiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn JoyceUnchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels by Hella WinstonThe Protest Psychosis: How Schizophrenia Became a Black Disease by Jonathan Metzl, and The Tricky Part: A Memoir by Martin Moran.