“One Occupied Gazan Summer” is a three-part personal narrative by Mariam I. who explores her thoughts and retraces her steps during her most recent visit to the Gaza Strip. Read part two here and part three here.
Part one of three. As summer ends and fall begins, I find myself reflecting on the three months of summer I spent in Gaza this year. Though the sweet moments I miss most are the ones I spent laughing with my cousins deep into the night and getting lost with friends in neighborhoods we’d never before seen, the hardest moments to forget are the subtly brutal ways siege and occupation impacted our daily lives.
I remember two weeks in June of muted activity and total fear of non-emergency movement in the Gaza Strip. I had made my first set of plans with the girls from work; I was excited to finally have some kind of non-family-centered social life and to bond with a couple of girls my age. We were going to have lunch at a hotel in the Sudaniyyeh area of northern Gaza City.
I’d heard a lot about this place; it was fancy, extravagant, had a beautiful swimming pool, was impossible to afford for the overwhelming majority of Gazans, and hadn’t made any profit since it was built. I was a little too excited when I got dressed that morning. I remember hesitating before I decided to wear sandals to work. They are horribly too informal for a law student intern trying to make a good impression. But hey, I was going out with the girls. My boss would have to learn to deal with my sandaled feet.
I hopped out of my cheap, decrepit taxi and half-skipped to work. The girl who spearheaded the plans was the receptionist, Nour. As soon as I walked in, overly chipper and with a bounce in my step, I asked Nour if she was excited for our lunch date. She frowned and looked at me sympathetically as she explained that the Sudaniyyeh area, where the hotel was located, was totally off limits for our lunch plans. This area was known to be targeted during surges of Israeli attack, like the one we were experiencing.
I was so disappointed and instantly regretted my decision to wear sandals to work. A few moments later, when my self-absorption faded, I remembered that our website technician lived in the Sudaniyyeh area. What did this mean for her? Would she be safe? What about the countless other families also living in the area?
I was struck with a fear I did not know well. All of the sudden, Israeli attacks were part of my daily life and people I knew personally were in immediate danger. I was horrified.
Those two weeks were difficult. I felt like I was in a prison. From the moment I arrived in Gaza, I asked everyone I met if they had a way to get me into a tunnel. I was dying to see what they were like on the inside, what the process of finding one was like, and to quench my curiosity about the strange means that permit Gazans access to food, medicine, toys, and zoo animals.
One day, after all of my friends refused to do anything with me out of fear of being the next victims of Israeli violence, I asked a well-connected uncle of mine if we could visit the tunnels. He looked at me with shock and confusion and said that my request was unreasonable and then proceeded to ask me what I was even thinking trying to go near the tunnels in the present situation. I did not grow up calculating the risk of death associated with the activities I wanted to partake in, so this was a strange response for me to hear.
I realized, as did my family, that my concern for my own well-being and personal safety was lacking when I tried to convince my family to go to the beach during this period. Apparently, during times of conflict, the beach was one of the most dangerous places to be. I instantly thought of Huda Ghalia yelling “Yabba, yabba!” on the beach as she ran to her slain father’s lifeless body.
I gave up on trying to go out and began requesting that we just go visit other family members in nearby camps. My uncle again refused. He explained with minimal detail that riding in government cars was utterly irresponsible, so we would have no means of transportation because he is a government employee required to travel via government car, and instantly I understood the danger that was lurking. Everyone’s refusal to leave their homes meant that I spent much more time at home than I would have liked, which in turn meant the power cuts were much more difficult to ignore.
Days without power were the worst. We would grow so bored that we forced ourselves to take naps. The motivation behind this was that if there was no power in the afternoon, then the power would come at about 10:00 PM and if we slept all day, we would be able to stay up all night and benefit from the hours of electricity at night. Students would save their research and studies for the hours when we would have power and I would save my work and emailing for that time as well. We would be so frustrated from boredom and the unbearable heat that we often could not sleep. This is when we got creative with out pastimes.
Once, we spent four hours doing origami. Another time, we braided the entire family’s hair in the most ridiculous ways. I also remember having to turn off my cell phone and laptop to conserve their low charge for use in case of emergency.
But all in all, there was nothing worse than work during a power cut. Our office felt like it was twenty degrees hotter than the rest of Gaza City and when the power was out, we didn’t have the luxury of air conditioning to help relieve us of a fragmental portion of this heat. The generator at the office was powerful enough to run our computers, phones, lights, and fans. The particular office I was in had one fan and three employees equally intolerant of the heat. We spent at least half of each powerless workday readjusting the fan to maximize breeziness for each of us, turning it ever so lightly clockwise and counter-clockwise, bringing it a few inches forward and backward, until no one complained.
Powerless workdays were useless workdays because we each were too focused on staying cool to properly focus on our tasks and each of our hot-tempers and short fuses made working together a total impossibility.
Nights without power may have been even worse than powerless days. I remember how embarrassed my uncle was when he was forced to cancel a large gathering he had planned all week because the power generator suddenly stopped working and he was unable to find someone to repair it last minute. But the worst thing about power cuts at night was the heat. As hot as the days were, there was always someplace in the house you could go where the wind was blowing just right. That was not the case at night.
Everything stops at night, including the wind, and the humidity feels like a heavy soggy blanket trying to suffocate you. As uncomfortable as the heat was, it became a thousand times more unbearable when you tried to sleep. We searched for all kinds of solutions. We tried sleeping on different balconies of the house hoping a cool breeze would find us, but then we would wake up covered with mosquito bites and sticky from the heavy humidity. We tried sleeping on the cold, hard tile, but we would wake up queasy and with unimaginable neck pain. Sleeping became an impossible chore when the power was out.
I remember how shocked I was when I realized the impacts the power cuts had on my favorite foods. I spent half of Ramadan in Gaza. Ramadan for me is a time of small meals to break my fast so that I won’t feel too weighed down to pray the evening taraweeh prayers, and huge and greasy late night meals of all the cold leftovers from the past couple of days. I cannot remember what the dish was, but I can remember looking for it in the fridge two days after we made it and being alarmed that it was missing. In the morning, I asked who had finished off my greasy late night snack. I was told that the increased power cuts that began with Ramadan meant half of the food in the fridge spoiled and was dumped. Though few families are as blessed as my family to have surpluses of food to store, all families suffer from effects of power cuts. Needless to say, this was probably the first Ramadan in which I lost weight. Even something as minute and natural as food rotting was a reminder of how present a force Israel’s siege of Gaza was in our lives.
Maryam I. is a third generation Palestinian refugee, born and raised in the United States. Follow her on twitter: @48Refugee.