This Land Called Gaza – A Love and A Curse

“And what projects are you working on at the moment?”

“An exhibition…and…I’m working on the completion of a new book, something very close to my heart.”

“What’s it about?”

“The Palestinians.”

There was a rather long silence…my friend looked at me with a slightly sad smile, and said “Sure, why not! But don’t you think the subject’s a bit dated? Look, I’ve taken photographs of the Palestinians too, especially in the refugee camps…its really sad! But these days, who’s interested in people who eat off the ground with their hands? And then there’s all that terrorism…I’d have thought you’d be better off using your energy and capabilities on something more worthwhile!”

– Swiss photographer Jean Mohr [Said, E. & Mohr, J., After The Last Sky, Columbia University Press, 1999]

Palestine is a thankless cause, one in which if you truly serve you get nothing back but opprobrium, abuse, and ostracism…Palestine is the cruelest, most difficult cause to uphold, not because it is unjust, but because it is just and yet dangerous to speak about as honestly and as concretely as [he] did.

– Edward Said on intellectual/activist Eqbal Ahmed [Barsamian, D, Eqbal Ahmed: Confronting Empire South End Press, 2000].

Most independent photographers arriving in Palestine carry with them the awareness that much if not all of their work will go largely unpublished. This is not only because Gaza and the West Bank are amongst the world’s most thoroughly photographed human tragedies, but also because speaking of the Palestinian’s as a real people with real suffering remains near impossible. Their story has been effectively reduced to that of ‘terrorism’, ‘extremism’ and one of ‘instigators of violence’. Their rights and demands for justice drowned out by the shrill insistence on Israel’s infinite innocence and need for restitution for historical wrongs. And on presumptions of their mendacity and single-minded determination to destroy ‘the Zionist entity’. Even President Barack Obama, in a recent speech in Cairo, placed the principal responsibility of regional violence on their weak, unarmed and repeatedly defeated shoulders. Photographers and journalists who try to reveal a different reality or raise questions about the myth of Israeli innocence or question the assumption of Palestinian mendacity, find themselves ignored, marginalized and unpublished. Independent photographers who come to Palestine do so armed not with major assignments but with convictions that are personal and individual. And they usually come alone.

I arrived at Rafah, Egypt – the only crossing into Rafah, Gaza, during the last days of Israeli’s Operation Cast Lead. This time I was luckier than most for I had the support of a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant and the encouragement of Ted Genoways, the creative and poetic editor of The Virginia Quarterly Review magazine. By the time I argued my way into Gaza, a way repeatedly blocked first by the Israelis and then by the Egyptians, I found myself in what had by then become only one of the most important prime time news events of the year.

The Israeli assault on Gaza began on the last day of Hanukkah on December 27th 2008 and eventually left nearly 1400 dead, thousands injured and tens of thousands displaced. It was covered by every major international TV news channel, daily newspaper and weekly magazine. Their cameramen, on-screen personalities, photographers, directors, fixers and coordinators stormed the walls of Gaza in a rush to film, edit, transmit and broadcast the events as they unfolded. On any given day, at any given hour, dozens of videographers and photojournalists could be seen in the hallways of Gaza’s famous Al-Diera Hotel speaking anxiously into their mobile phones, or sitting at tables in the restaurants, hunched over their laptops, cursing the slow internet connections and desperately transmitting their latest images. And when they were not scoffing down a quick meal, they were furtively discussing plans with their local minders, or rushing towards their waiting cars to get to a ‘hot’ location. Amidst this mob of media I, with my little film cameras and a small grant that gave me the freedom to work at my own pace, found myself apart, confused and more alone than ever before. How would what I came to say be heard over this noise?

My first time in Gaza was in the summer of 2003. I was a novice photographer who went because Edward Said wrote a small response to an email I sent him and encouraged me to go. I then returned and continued to document the situation in Gaza, particularly in southern Gaza city of Rafah where I worked for nearly 2 years. The settlers were still in Gaza then, and so were activists from the International Solidarity Movement (ISM), and the armored bulldozers and their accompanying tanks that were constructing the massive steel wall along the Rafah’s border with Egypt. The American activist Rachel Corrie, who was crushed to death by an Israeli armored bulldozer, was still there; alive, determined, passionate and beautiful. Home demolitions were frequent along the Rafah-Egypt border as bulldozers tore down Palestinian homes to make way for the steel wall. Tank patrols would terrorize residents living along the border, and there would be frequent firing into these neighborhoods resulting in deaths and maiming of residents. As a photographer I documented my fair share of funerals, Hamas marches and families salvaging their belongings from the ruins of their destroyed houses. Between 2003 and 2006 I made several trips to this surrounded territory, continuing to document the slowly shrinking social, political, economic and cultural space of its inhabitants.

And then I stopped coming. Dozens of courageous Palestinian photographers were doggedly documenting the bitter and crushing existence of the Gazans, and the incessant economic and military violence against them. The international photojournalists too kept coming to photograph the ‘militants’ and the ‘fanatics’, as if to provide the ‘facts’ that would maintain what Saree Makdisi has recently called a language that prevents us from recognizing what’s really going on in the Middle East [Makdisi, S., “A Language That Absolves Israel,” The Los Angeles Times, 2009].  I felt that after three years of consistent work I had nothing new to add to this dialogue, nothing new to show. In retrospect I realize that it was an act of surrender by a young photographer frustrated by his inability to effectively capture in pictures the sufferings of those around him..

But now I was back again, and walking through the devastation left the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead I was struck by how familiar it all looked. The scale was larger than anything that I could remember, and its consequences very familiar; the bombed homes, the displaced families, the tank-track torn olive and citrus groves, the stunned relatives of the dead, the funeral dirges, the Hamas marches, the victory songs, the numbing buzz of the pilot-less drones overhead, the children scavenging amongst ruins, the sirens of the ambulances, the men on donkey carts carrying debris to nowhere, and that constant, distant human wail of a life torn apart or a hope torn asunder. Here I was again, but I had been here before and seen it before. The scenes I witnessed were remarkably similar to those I had seen during my time in Gaza between 2003 and 2006. As some of the world’s best photojournalists scrambled all around me to capture the devastation for the world’s audience, I found that I still had nothing new to say and by the second day I put away my cameras and stopped taking pictures.

And then I met Ismail Ibrahim Abu Eida.

He was walking alone near the rubble of his family home lost in thought. When he noticed me standing close by he merely nodded and said nothing. I stood there looking at him stumble and trip across the pile of rubble that had once been his home. A lone figure amongst thousands of lonely figures all over Gaza who were at that very moment quietly, resignedly stumbling and tripping across the rubble of their own lives. I wanted to talk to him about what was going through his mind, but he seemed reluctant, even a little embarrassed. “What will I tell you that others have not?”, he said quietly. And he was right.

Abu Eida’s pain – the loss of his life’s work, the displacement of his family, and the ruination of his livelihood, was an oft repeated occurrence in this land. Tens of thousands had already suffered it, and it was certain, given the entrenched ideas and ideals that perpetuate this conflict, that tens of thousands more are destined to do so in the future. In this land of pain, where everyone has experienced the gravest of loss, it has become difficult to express individual suffering or ask for compassion. In a life that must accept as normal the sudden and violent erasure of all that one holds dear, a life in which you console your neighbor knowing full well that someday they will be consoling you, you no longer speak about your own sorrows. You no longer share your burden because others are so crushed under their own. In a life of collective punishment your scars and sufferings are starkly your own to confront and tolerate.

Abu Eida was fortunate. No one had died. His family had been displaced to a UN refugee center, and he was sleeping on a mattress in a cargo container on the family property. With a voice that was severely controlled, he explained to me how tanks and bulldozers had forced him to flee and leveled everything he had built over the course of his life, including his family’s orange groves. Then he invited me for tea. He had only one cup. Ten minutes of digging in the rubble produced a second—broken but usable. He had no place for me to sit but a shout to a friend down the road produced a three-legged plastic chair. I protested this kindness, but he wouldn’t hear of it, reminding me that I was his guest. “It is our way, Mr. Rafiqui,” he insisted, as he made himself comfortable in the dirt, “to honor our guests— and to remind ourselves of the things within us which cannot be destroyed by tanks and missiles.”

As the day grew hotter, the mist that shrouded the citrus groves lifted, revealing what had once been the Jabaliya industrial zone. Ismail pointed toward Israel. I could see a wire fence and the silhouettes of soldiers walking along it. Israeli farmers had begun returning to their fields that morning as jeeps carrying soldiers raced back and forth along the border areas. Snipers kept an eye on the few Palestinians who dared to return to their lands. Despite the cease-fire, Gazan farmers were being shot and killed at random. “I used to work in Israel,” Ismail said. “But that was a different time, a different world.”

This world, the one whose remains surrounded us that morning, now lay in a shroud of dust raised by the hundreds of hands salvaging valuables from the remains of their homes, factories, stores, and farmlands. As I looked up from my cup of tea and out towards the scarred landscape I could see people sifting through rubble, searching for bodies, salvaging remains of machinery, consoling their children, or just sitting amongst the ruins of their homes. It struck me that indeed how fortunate were the dead who had at least, as Plato said, seen the end of war. The living however go on and suffer its horrors, carry it’s burdens, tolerate its indignities, appease its sorrows, and accept its cruelest gift – the death of loved ones.

Later that morning I finally made my first photograph – a family searching for the remains of a patriarch. The bulldozer roared and clawed mercilessly against the pile of ruins, churning up metal, concrete, electrical wiring, toys, clothing and whatever else its massive jaws caught in their broad sweeps. Around it sat many family members and friends, patiently watching the bulldozer work, prepared for the moment the body is discovered. “How do you know if someone is still trapped in there?” I asked. “You can smell it!”, came a slightly exasperated reply. There were no camera crews at the site, no photojournalists waiting to capture the moment. It was just one body, one individual, being searched for. The ‘hot’ news stories were elsewhere that morning and will be elsewhere the day after.

But these searches, these sorrows, and the days without those who were once so close, so needed, will go on. As I stood on a small hill and watch the bulldozer tear away at the collapsed walls of the house I was struck with the realization that even when the world’s attention falls on them, the Gazans are most distant, misunderstood and isolated from us. The world comes to them asking them to be either the hate-filled militant out to destroy Israel or the innocent victims of Israel’s fanaticism. And in the process it denudes them of their ordinariness, frailty and flawed humanity. In its attentions the world ghettoizes them, refusing them their history, politics, memories and agendas. Gone are their love affairs, their family feuds, their fears and hopes for their children’s futures, their infidelities, their ambitions, their material desires, their days on the beach, their care for their elderly, their gentleness towards strangers, their love of food, their eye for the perfect coffee bean, their undying and near familial love of the olive tree and their sense of connectedness with the land.

This land called Gaza – a love and a curse.

Photographer’s Note: This essay was submitted to a Swedish magazine that eventually considered it too uninteresting for publication. It was also the essay I submitted recently to a grant committee to continue my work in Gaza. I did not receive the grant. I share it here despite its seemingly sorry record, as perhaps nothing more than a way to allow the thoughts I put down here to escape from the confinement of my hopes and disappointments.

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