Ten years on from the 2008/2009 Gaza war – a war like an “academic year, with a slash between the two numbers” – two friends from the Tel el-Hawa neighbourhood meet and remember the terrors of the night of the invasion. Salam remained trapped in his home and endures the battle; Abu Ahmad had fled to safety.
During his night of terror, Salam, frozen in the darkness, has to listen to the pleas of a young fighter dying beneath his window. He explains to his friend the fallout from the war: “I’ve been living with the dead since that night. The whole of this city lives with the dead.” Yet the dead are both present and absent: Salam leaves his house in the morning and addresses that absence: “Ten years we’ve been neighbours, my friend […] and I’ve never once said good morning to you.ara
Translated by: Raphael Cohen
“It was a pitched battle…” – a description he had often read out to his classmates from history textbooks but never thought he would one day use as he had just done, speaking to his friend, to describe that night. He didn’t even know what ‘pitched’ meant. He just felt it captured the passion of his history teacher at the time.
“… The ground invasion began from the western side of Tel el-Hawa. As you know, the area is divided into two parts, west and east. The west has brightly coloured apartment blocks that have names and are stuck together in rows. It’s quite well known for its bourgeoisie since most of the residents work for the Palestinian National Authority that was created after the Oslo Accords and instituted their bourgeois class. But those people created no wealth of any kind. Actually, the good name of the bourgeoisie took a bad hit when the term was used to characterize that side of the area. Perhaps there was something problematic about applying the concept. Many people think that the bourgeois are the rich who own their own homes and eat well, and in that respect we can count the residents of the area as such. But the real bourgeoisie is a class made up of businessmen and factory owners that creates some wealth. They are also hard workers and those who spark revolutions.”
“I don’t understand why you have to provide all those details as if I came from a foreign country. Why do you have to explain what I already know to tell me about the battle? Perhaps you want to give me a masterclass in you Communist ideology that has been dead and buried for ages. Spare me and just tell me the story. I’m from the area the same as you. But I’m a real bourgeois and you’re a self-styled one.”
“Ha, ha, ha! Exactly! That’s just what I mean. Anyway, the other half of the area, the eastern side, is closer to the border but the invasion didn’t start there. It’s mostly agricultural land, and the Occupation Army started encroaching from the more vulnerable area, where it was not expected to encounter any resistance. The Army left the east of the neighbourhood till last. It’s where the true bourgeoisie live, the owners of farms and factories, even if most of those were shut down because of the siege. They were also behind the revolution. Many of the resistance leadership had homes there. The battle of the 2008/2009 war took place that night.”
Is there another war in history that when you want to talk about it, your have to append two years? Or when you write it down, it looks like you’re referring to the academic year, with a slash between the two numbers? Basically, apart from this war, is there a war that begins at the end of one year and ends at the beginning of the following year? A succession of questions, numbers, and years took his thoughts away, as if he was trying to uncover an algorithm to predict the outbreak of war, forgetting that in his situation, war was an inheritance.
He poked the fire in the grate and piled the coals beneath the teapot to heat it up for the third time. Through the fog of this thoughts he observed his friend Abu Ahmed watching and waiting for him to snap out of it, just as he had waited a little before for him to finish his revolutionary preliminaries. What he loved about his sessions with Abu Ahmed was that he rarely interrupted when he went on too long in speech or went too far in the imagination.
He poured the tea and resumed: “The Army infiltrated into Tel el-Hawa and occupied the residential towers, contrary to all expectations. At that point, the PA people who had come from Tunis and Lebanon felt they were in direct confrontation with the Army, something which hadn’t happened since the 1980s. Still, that area wasn’t the Occupation’s target, but the other side of Tel el-Hawa, the revolutionary side where we live. That day I stood behind this window watching the missiles and listening to the gunfire and the screaming. Some people got away from our street by driving away at top speed, especially those who lived at the ends. Those in the middle, like me, were stuck. I couldn’t even open the window one centimetre. It was pitch dark. There was no electricity. Sometimes I heard the gasps of the resistance fighters as they ran. Honestly, I couldn’t tell whether it was the Army or the resistance running. It wasn’t even really running in the way it was back in the first Intifada for example. It was more like stalking. Like a game in which you ended up either alive or dead. A game in which you could enjoy deceiving death. You stood in front of it, but made it pass you by. Something like Russian roulette: one bullet in the chamber, spin the barrel a few times, then pull the trigger as soon as it stops without wondering whether the bullet will get you or not. The chase was like that. The combat was like that.”
“Strange that it’s been ten years since the war and this is the first time you’ve told me these details.”
“Ten years, right, almost to the day. Cold like this. Then it was impossible to light a fire for warmth. A spark the size of a fly meant certain death. Anyway, my friend, I stayed in the house, dipping bread into oil and zaatar, after the kids and my wife and mother escaped to my uncle’s house a week before during the ceasefire. I knew they wanted to take revenge on the eastern side, which is what happened. But I stayed guarding the house. You know how much I love history. Perhaps I wanted to be part of the battle, which happened too. To begin with, I heard guys calling to each other. I didn’t recognise any of the voices. I saw black shadows running through the blackness. I did know the local guys, but wasn’t friendly enough to recognise one of them from his voice. I’m a smoker and don’t go to Friday prayers at the mosque, so I was shunned in a certain way. I went out to work and came home to watch a game or read a book. I wanted to be a history teacher, but unfortunately, my high marks in science made my family pressure me into enrolling in something connected with medicine, so I went to the school of pharmacy.”
“It’s like you’re standing on stage introducing yourself to the audience. You’ve told me the story of history, your exams, and pharmacy a thousand times. Have we got old and senile? Go and pray on Fridays, perhaps God will be merciful and you’ll stop losing your memory.”
“Just listen, Abu Ahmed, and I’ll finish telling you what happened. Suddenly, I saw things glint like flickering lanterns, but it was more like the sheen of glass than lamplight. Straightaway, I knew it was an Occupation special forces unit. I couldn’t tell whether it was their weapons or their helmets that were flashing. My heart was beating like it would burst and I was so scared that I would be shot in the head that sweat trickled down from the back of my neck to my legs. You can taste death when it’s close. I was terrified of making any movement. They would hear me for sure – there weren’t many houses around me as the land hadn’t been developed. It was empty and that was what had made it safe for the resistance and a problem for the Occupation. So they were backed up by two helicopters. I’ve never been to the cinema, but from this viewpoint I saw what must have been more dramatic. Cinema in real life.
“They knew exactly where they were going. A helicopter shelled one of the houses. Then came an exchange of fire that went on for a few minutes before the same building was shelled again. Then everything stopped. I couldn’t hear the battle anymore. They must have left or got into the helicopter, I’m not sure. Minutes passed then I heard the voice of one of the resistance guys calling for help. He was wounded. All his comrades must have been killed because his was the only voice and resistance fighters don’t usually move around individually. None of the local residents still there approached him. Fear gripped the hearts. Of course, I didn’t approach either. I heard him calling, ‘Help me.’”
“We’d left the house that day, as you know, and fled to our uncle’s house in the north.”
“I heard him moving in the dust. He seemed to be writhing on the sand like a cat that had been hit by a car. Have you ever seen how a crushed cut struggles? It’s a sight that tears you up. Those were the thoughts messing with my head when I could hear his voice but not see him. Soon he called out again in a fainter voice, ‘Arab nations, where are you?’
“Amazing. He was bleeding to death and in his final struggle it occurred to him that the Arabs might respond. Perhaps it was despair as he drew his last breaths that worked on his mind and speech, taking it back to earlier slogans. How could someone in his struggle call out to nameless people whose response he did not know. Do you know what it’s like? I’ll give you an idea. A criminal shoots you one freezing night in Sweden, and as you’re dying alone in the snow, you shout, ‘EU, where are you?’
“Was there anything more ridiculous than that phrase of his. It might have been a worn out cliché, but it made me want to burst into tears. I instantly understood his unshakeable sense of his own inevitable death. What he said wasn’t a history lesson. It was a lesson in human weakness and the love of life. I mean my love of life.
“The next morning, once we were sure the area was safe, we cautiously stepped outside our homes. The sand had soaked up his blood. He lay there in a black jacket with a mask over his face.”
“Uff. What are you going on about? You’ve made me shudder. It wasn’t your fault, Salam. It was his fate. His time had come.”
“Fate, are you mad? That guy would be in his thirties now. If he’d lived and got married, he might be a father. Submission to an unjustified death makes me sick. I feel it’s helplessness not faith. Where were the neighbours and the locals? Where was the sheikh of the mosque?… Where, my brother, were the Arabs? Everyday for the last ten years when I leave my house I see him lying there. Imagine how many times I’ve stood in the doorway. How many times I’ve seen him stretched out. I’ve been living with the dead since that night. The whole of this city lives with the dead.”
“It’s been three wars, that’s no small thing.”
“When is war ever minor? All the wars in the world that I’ve read about, especially those with millions of victims, were all lies, because you can only write about war if you’ve survived.”
“Let God guide you. Go and pray the dawn prayer. Enough talking for today. Without faith, our people would never have endured all this suffering and these crimes.”
“The secret of our strength isn’t faith, but living with the dead. Good night. I pray the morning prayer at home.”
“Oh I forgot. You’re a spoilt bourgeois. The mosque comes to your bed. God Almighty forgive me. No one wants to speak blasphemously. God give me strength and refuge. All you’re saying is from the heat of battle.”
“The real blasphemy is what’s happening to us.”
Abu Ahmed headed for the local mosque. Salam tided up the cups and scattered sand on the fire. The whole time they had been sitting there, he felt that someone was behind him. He looked at the spot. Nothing had changed except the barrel of dried cement that the dead man had lain next to was gone. “Ten years we’ve been neighbours, my friend,” he whispered, “and I’ve never once said good morning to you.”
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