Sand and Sky
It was as close to heaven and as far from hell as I could get
that day, an isolated stretch of beach just two and a half miles
from the misery of Gaza City, where waves roll up on the shore
as if to wash away yesterday and leave a fresh start for tomorrow.
We probably looked like any other family at the beach - my two sons and six daughters, a few cousins and uncles and aunts - the kids frolicking in the water, writing their names in the sand, calling to each other over the onshore winds. But like most things in the Middle East, this picture-perfect gathering was not what it seemed. I'd brought the family to the beach to find some peace in the middle of our grief. It was December 12, 2008, just twelve short weeks since my wife, Nadia, had died from acute leukemia, leaving our eight children motherless, the youngest of them, our son Abdullah, only six years old. She'd been diagnosed and then died in only two weeks. Her death left us shocked, dazed, and wobbling with the sudden loss of the equilibrium she had always provided. I had to bring the family together, away from the noise and chaos of Jabalia City, where we lived, to find privacy for all of us to remember and to strengthen the ties that bind us one to the other.
The day was cool, the December sky whitewashed by a pale winter sun, the Mediterranean a pure azure blue. But even as I watched these sons and daughters of mine playing in the surf, looking like joyful children playing anywhere, I was apprehensive about our future and the future of our region. And even I did not imagine how our personal tragedy was about to multiply many times over. People were grumbling about impending military action. For several years, the Israelis had been bombing the smugglers' tunnels between the Gaza Strip and Egypt, but recently the attacks had become more frequent. Ever since the Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit had been captured by a group of Islamic militants in June 2006, a blockade had been put in place, presumably to punish the Palestinian people as a whole for the actions of a few. But now the blockade was even tighter, and the tunnels were the only way most items got into the Gaza Strip. Every time they had been bombed, they had been rebuilt, and then Israel would bomb them again. Adding to the isolation, the three crossings from Israel and Egypt into Gaza had been closed to the media for six months, a sign that the Israelis didn't want anyone to know what was going on. You could feel the tension in the air.
Most of the world has heard of the Gaza Strip. But few know what it's like to live here, blockaded and impoverished, year after year, decade after decade, watching while promises are broken and opportunities are lost. According to the United Nations, the Gaza Strip has the highest population density in the world. The majority of its approximately 1.5 million residents are Palestinian refugees, many of whom have been living in refugee camps for decades; it is estimated that 80 percent are living in poverty. Our schools are overcrowded, and there isn't enough money to pave the roads or supply the hospitals.
The eight refugee camps and the cities - Gaza City and Jabalia City - that make up Gaza are noisy, crowded, dirty. One refugee camp, the Beach Camp in western Gaza City, houses more than eighty-one thousand people in less than one half of a square mile. But still, if you listen hard enough, even in the camps you can hear the heartbeat of the Palestinian nation. People should understand that Palestinians don't live for themselves alone. They live for and support each other. What I do for myself and my children, I also do for my brothers and sisters and their children. My salary is for all of my family. We are a community.
The spirit of Gaza is in the cafes where narghile-smoking patrons discuss the latest political news; it's in the crowded alleyways where children play; in the markets where women shop then rush back to their families; in the words of the old men shuffling along the broken streets to meet their friends, fingering their worry beads and regretting the losses of the past.
Excerpted from I Shall Not Hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish. Copyright © 2011 by Izzeldin Abuelaish. Excerpted by permission of Walker & Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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