The Palestine Entries: The inconveniences of living in the Strip

// Entry #25

Before setting off to the Gaza Strip, I wondered how soon it would be before I write about the things we take for granted. I’ve held out from writing this super-cliché article for three weeks now but my experiences these last few days have compelled me to give readers a glimpse of the kind of inconveniences people in the Gaza Strip deal with on a daily basis.

The electricity here runs on a very awkward three-day schedule. On the first day, the electricity is cut from around 7 or 8 AM until 3 PM. On day two, the electricity is cut from 3 PM until midnight. On day three, the electricity is available for the entire day. The inconvenience of living your life according to a power grid’s activity forces Gazans to prioritize their time. Activities that involve manual labor or remove you from the presence of a wall socket are saved for the hours without electricity. Activities that require electricity are completed as soon as possible before a new schedule is enforced and the lights go out for good.

Most Gazans do what they can during the power outtages. But here I am carrying a camera battery that needs charging, a dying laptop, a blood-sucking Blackberry cell phone, an external hard drive, an old iPod, and an undying thirst for wireless internet. When the clock strikes three and the lights go out, the next nine hours become the slowest of my life. I sit on the couch staring out of the window, watching store owners start their emergency generators. In a matter of minutes, the loud rumble of dozens of generator motors gives me a headache and adds to the troubles of living under electrical rations.

I can just as well go outside and eat an ice cream cone or walk along the sea coast but I live on the seventh floor of a building. Power outages mean the following: the elevator sits still, the fans don’t work, and the doorbells don’t either. Walking up fifteen flights of stairs is not easy, especially when it’s only to fetch the wallet you should’ve already been carrying with you.

So I decide to stay inside, and my relatives decide the same. The ten-minute walk up and down the stairs forces them to cancel any planned get-togethers.

Eventually, the seemingly solitary confinement convinces me to drop my electrical accessories and make my way downstairs towards the throngs of people walking in the streets. Usually I join a relative on his balcony or take a cab to a local souvenir shop. Cab fare to almost all places within Gaza City is only 1 shekel, equivalent to about $0.34 USD.

But then I need to come back home. Up the 153 steps I go. By the time I reach the door, I’m drenched in sweat and muttering insults under my breath. I’m thirsty and I motion to my mother that I’ll die if I don’t find a cold drink but the power is out so the refrigerator can’t do its job. I settle for the warm water but, believe it or not, it runs out. People are advised not to drink from tap water due to the contaminants and pollutants dumped from both Israeli and Palestinian landfills so all drinking water is collected from “sweet water” sources.

Every ten days, a truck carrying purified water drives to the front of our apartment building. Tenants lower ropes that the truck drivers tie to a thick rubber hose attached to the truck’s cargo compartment. The hose is hoisted up and aimed into a large barrel or tub that stores the water until the next truck comes by. When enough water has been transferred, the hose is lowered again and someone runs down to the water truck to pay the drivers. But I’m still thirsty and I don’t have time to wait for the next water truck.

The other alternative is to carry a clean gasoline container to the nearest outdoor water tank. I carry the container down the stairs and walk a few blocks to the Remal Supermarket which is half the size of a neighborhood arts and crafts store and sells absolutely no fresh foods. The cashier hands me a special wrench for the faucet and I fill the container. I pay for the water and drag the container back to the apartment building.

All of the sudden, I experience flashbacks of my mother telling me stories of her childhood. “We used to walk miles barefoot through the sand and the rocks just to get to school.” With all due respect, every Arab born in or after 1985 has heard this story, but for the first time, I actually take it seriously. I’ve seen women carry large pans on their heads for long distances and I’ve seen my 8-year-old cousin run this same errand many times before but it was my first time to have to go through the inconvenience of a water shortage.

It takes me more than five minutes to reach the seventh floor with the large green container of water over my right shoulder and again, the sweat drenches my shirt. This will be the second time I dry it in the sun today.

The sun goes down as I drink all the water that I can. When we can no longer rely on the sunlight to illuminate our homes, our neighbors power their generator. The area reeks of exhaust fumes (the generators run on low-grade unleaded gasoline imported from Egypt) and the noise drowns out my voice but I’m not complaining. They’ve graciously extended a line to us. All we need to do is plug in an electrical cord hooked to the generator and we’ve got enough power to turn on a few eco-friendly lights.

Everyone warns me about touching the metal prongs of the electrical cord but sometimes my finger slips. Zap.

Electrocution is quite common. The last time I was here was in 2004 and I was electrocuted twice. The first time took out the entire floor, the second time caused a building-wide blackout.

But so far today, I’ve lost my breath twice, traveled and performed taxing manual labor for a glass of water, and experienced a minor electrocution.

These experiences may appear sensationalized for the sake of this post but these really are the daily experiences — excluding the electrocutions, God forbid — of 1.8 million Gazans living under an occupation in which the most basic rights and privileges are out of their control, the rights and privileges we take advantage of without even realizing. But this is definitely not comprehensive by any means. I didn’t mention the random power outages that occur during Israeli air strikes every few days or the surprise water shortages that force people to use their precious purified water to flush the toilet or to abandon their bathtubs for days. You haven’t seen the faces of distraught family members as their daughter’s wedding is forced to end early when the lights go out without warning. And I don’t mean to belittle the situation, but have you ever sat amongst a crowd of middle-aged men watching the newest episode of a Turkish drama as the power goes out and the television shuts down? I have, and it’s not pretty. (But the worst part is when they hypothesize and debate over the outcome of the segments they miss. I promptly make my way out of the room every time.)

The population of Gaza is more or less accustomed to the blackouts and the regular inaccessibility to clean drinking water, and they realize that this is all just another component of the occupation meant to try their patience, to punish them collectively, to force them into accepting the fact that others run their lives. But as we see with the electrical generators and the makeshift water purifiers, the people here are adamant about outsmarting these ridiculous limitations.

Meanwhile, I type this in the hopes that I’ll stumble upon some level of internet access long enough to put this post online. But with today’s series of blackouts, who knows when I’ll find a functioning wireless internet router.

Sami Kishawi

There are 2 comments

  1. 48Refugee

    Such an eyeopening article and not at all cliche!
    You haven’t experienced life in Gaza until you hear someone yell at the F16 flying over their house for messing up the satellite reception during a Turkish musalsal hahaha
    Joking aside, they really have to go through a lot! Showering is a difficult task especially in the winter when the solar panels don’t heat the water sufficiently and the electricity is out so the electric water heater (that most people don’t have access to anyway) can’t be used. The generators are so dangerous, so many people have been killed and houses burned down because of them.
    iA the standard of living in Gaza improves soon..

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