Creative Nonfiction: The Almost Road

The pavement is fresh, hot and black with a sidewalk that reminds me of the boardwalk in Beirut that hugs the sea. For a moment I think I’m there.

“This wasn’t here last time I came,” I tell my friend who’s driving me around. People are still littered on the beach, enjoying the last few hours of the weekend by the sea.
“No, in fact it’s no more than six months old,” he says. “It was constructed by a telephone company that refused to pay taxes to Hamas. They said they already paid to the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah so why pay taxes twice? So they struck a deal and decided to take some of their profits to build this road.”
We drive north and pass through some of Gaza City’s main streets. “Ninety percent of the shops have nothing but goods made in China. Compare that to twenty years ago, when most of the textiles, shoes, and other goods were made here in Gaza. We even exported them to the world.”
After a few minutes the road leads to nowhere. It suddenly stops and turns to sand. “You see this area on the left,” he points to open land surrounded by cacti. On what used to be a football pitch, sheep graze. “This used to be an American school. It was attacked, then it was destroyed it and now there’s nothing left.”
Most of his sentences either end with “now there’s nothing left” or “now it’s controlled by Hamas.” The old resort that used to sell alcohol still operates but sans booze. A stable created in Arafat’s time is now a wedding hall. We pass by a huge mosque right smack on the beach erected by a rich politician. Whatever’s left of the road we’re on gets cut up and diverted because of the construction of a sewage treatment plant.  The newish Movenpick hotel changed hands because it could not be a five star hotel and sell booze with an open swimming pool.
During times of incursion, tanks and bulldozers trampled the streets with ripper shanks and cut the road in the middle. You still see the road opened up, left to decay and become part of the sand. It’s desperate, it’s desolate. Children fly makeshift kites, some fabricated out of sheets of paper. Others are crappy cheap plastic hexagonal kites most probably imported from China through the tunnels. Amidst the garbage, bald and burned tires, donkey shit and horseshit, arid land, smashed fences, emaciated sheep, makeshift houses made of scrap metal with old palm leaves as roofs. Flying a kite seems to be the only thing to keep children amused, to look up to the sky as a form of distraction of the miserable reality around them.  It’s all they’ve got.

A Letter to My Sons: City of Dreams, Gaza

Dear Alexandre, Dear Sam,

 

I’m back in Jerusalem, writing to you from the comfort of a guesthouse that’s part of a cathedral over one hundred years old. It’s relatively quiet save for the traffic outside my window, my room is sparse but pleasant, with archways defining a ceiling three times my height, and a garden a few steps away that a travel enthusiast would probably label as quaint or charming.

 

I do my best to appreciate my surroundings, but doing so after a trip to Gaza only compounds the conflicting thoughts I have in processing what I’ve just experienced. I have felt sadness and anger, frustration and disbelief, despondency and despair; yet in equal measure I have seen tenacity and hope, cheerfulness and gentleness, dedication and stoicism.

 

Over three years ago, in my first letter to you from Gaza, I described the beach view from my hotel window as “beautiful, and it’s full of garbage.” This time, my hotel offered a similar view, although added to the garbage were piles of rusted scrap metal and heaps of crumbled concrete. The scenery going through town and all over the Gaza Strip wasn’t all that different; it was dirty, but once in a while you saw a massive, stinking garbage bin in which people with busted brooms dumped their crap. There were occasional mounds of concrete where buildings once stood. Once in a while you’d see a mosque or an apartment building that would look fine and you’d wonder why no one was in it until you’d turn the corner and realize the front had been bombed to pieces, steel rods sticking through pulverized foundations.

 

There are no traffic lights that work. Banged up cars share the road with carts pulled by ragged donkeys and emaciated horses, trucks that would have failed any road safety check just about anywhere else on the planet, and a parade of international vehicles including the armoured one I was in. Billboards have layer upon layer of faded, posterized martyrs either looking thoughtful or brandishing guns and rocket launchers. The buildings are grey and brown and the roads are just as drab. There are plenty of people milling about, some merchants selling fruits and vegetables in their carts, others smacking the dust off their displays of children’s clothing or cheap toys made in China. Flocks of uniformed students pour out from the walled schools and flood the streets with their brightly coloured cheap backpacks adorned with Dora the Explorer, SpongeBob, and Mickey Mouse always offering their best smiles. Candy wrappers littering the ground mark the students’ homeward journeys.

 

As we drove up to the blue gates of one school yesterday, the words “We need homes” were spray painted in red. After the violence and destruction that shook Gaza last summer, there are still thousands of people who have no homes left, and with winter’s sting approaching, the suffering of many will only worsen.

 

I felt tremendous trepidation coming to Gaza this time. I wanted to know how people were doing without prying. When I asked a friend how things were, he looked at me and spoke with his usual, even tone: “My father passed away two days before the end of the war.” Upon seeing my face, he went on to explain that his father did not die as a result of the violence this past summer, but that he’d been battling illness for some time. Still, I reflected somberly, how horrible for his last days to be spent under the veil of constant fear.

 

My friend told me that it was the first time he’s ever felt truly frightened and helpless. “We were staying at a safe house at one point,” he told me. “I received a call telling me that the house was going to be bombed within five or ten minutes. But when I phoned the police, they could not verify the threat. I didn’t know what to do, so I told the people inside the house about the threat, and they kept on asking me to tell them what to do. But how could I know what was right? What if I told them to go elsewhere and that place would be bombed? How can I have this responsibility to tell someone what to do? I can’t do that, I simply can’t.”

 

He decided to stay in the safe house and insisted others make their own decision as to stay or go. In the end, everyone stayed and the house was not bombed. His story reflects only one moment from that horrible time, a time in which he, like so many others, felt defenseless. The depth of fear and despair Gazans suffered was enough for many people I met to label what happened as a “war,” whereas in the past, there were conflicts or incursions.

 

People are still recovering from the devastation; later that day my friend said his colleagues went to the beach “for stress relief because of the war.” Going to the beach doesn’t sound like much, but when there is so little to begin with, a group of colleagues going to the beach together is as much therapy or freedom or stress relief or faith in God to keep their spirits up and show up for work tomorrow.

 

The teachers I met over the past three days play a significant role in helping children keep their spirits up while providing a safe and sheltered environment in school. I saw them encourage students to express themselves, to be creative, to participate in class and to proudly assert the rights they have, or at least should have. In one activity in which Grade 3 students drew a new city where they would all like to live, one student showed his artwork and explained to the class, “This is Freedom City. And there’s a school here, because that’s where we go to learn.” Another child’s city was “City of Dreams,” and was drawn next to the sea.


To a cynic, such an activity is meaningless, and if anything gives false hope to children who will more than likely live in poverty for years to come. But human rights education has always been more than learning about rights. It’s about helping create a culture of human rights among all people so that we can live a life of dignity and treat others as we would want to be treated by them. Hoping for a City of Dreams in a place that is so often associated with despair, destruction, and hate gives me reason to believe that today’s children will have the strength to dream and contribute towards a better world than the one we’re living in. If a child can do that while living in Gaza, there’s still hope that they will be kinder than those who today act only through violence.

 

I guess I’m hoping for a City of Dreams too.

 

Je t’aime Alexandre, je t’aime Sam.

 

Still trying to believe in faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse

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A while ago someone asked me how I handle working in places like Gaza and then return to the quiet, peaceful place that is my home in Montreal.

“I have an ON/OFF switch,” I told him. “I switch it OFF when I need to and forget about the misery I leave behind.”

However simplistic – or in fact uncaring – an answer that may be, it remains essentially true to what I do. Being in the presence of my children at home forces my switch to the OFF position; I can’t feel sorry for my friends in Gaza while I have to take my kids to a swim meet, or make them supper, or yell at them to clean their rooms. I just can’t feel all the time.

The escalating violence in Gaza pains me tremendously; my switch has flipped ON and OFF too many times in the past days. When four boys were killed on the beach in Gaza July 16, the pictures I saw were devastating, and so painful and raw and horrifying that they can never be unseen. As I looked more closely at one reporter’s account my heart sank when I saw the pictures he’d posted. He was staying at the same hotel I’ve stayed at in Gaza a number of times, and one photo showed a man carrying an injured boy into the hotel’s restaurant. I saw the man’s burly face and bushy beard and realized I knew him. He’d carried my luggage once or twice upon my arrival at the hotel; always had a nice smile, always wished me a good day. And there he was, carrying a bloodied boy in his arms.

Carrying a wounded child at the al Deira Hotel, Gaza.
Photograph: Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Seeing the man I knew carry the wounded boy made the violence more immediate, more urgent and desperate, and to use Anthony Bourdain’s words on Twitter in relation to a photo of the children, “so devastating.” It broke my switch. I have such a hard time processing the images I’m seeing from Gaza that I can’t think straight anymore. Half my Facebook newsfeed pops up with friends sharing the latest images of children gored by the bombings; the other half shows friends on sunny beaches during their vacation. In one particularly stark contrast this morning, one friend posted a video of babies being tickled, while the next feed from a different friend showed a disemboweled infant in Gaza cradled in a man’s arms. Last week I switched off the misery in Gaza and even resorted to the fluffy stuff by posting a few of my own sunny, life-is-good pictures from a peaceful beach.

I think of the people I’ve met in Gaza, the mothers, the fathers, their children. I think of the homes they’ve invited me to, I think of their smiling faces, I think of their resolve, their kindness, their fears, their squalor, their blood. None of what’s happening now makes sense. To make matters more difficult to understand, so much of the violence gets filtered through rhetoric from people posting an astounding amount of hatred online directed at both Israelis and Palestinians. Every argument and opinion advocating one perspective is counterbalanced with an opposing viewpoint that invariably starts with “Yes, but.” None of that helps us move forward, none of that helps stop the violence, the fear, the anguish.

I am not pro-either side, nor am I anti-neither. I am pro-peace, I am pro-human rights, pro-love and pro-anything else that makes sense if you want to live in a world in which you’re happy and safe. The leaders on both sides have undertaken actions that are reprehensible. The Israeli government’s defense measures have resulted in the deaths of over 300 Palestinians, most of whom are civilians. Its actions are abhorrent and considered by Human Rights Watch to be unlawful acts. Rockets launched by Hamas into Israel are an equally abhorrent act, and while the death toll is astoundingly disproportionate between the two sides, the anguish caused to Israeli citizens is something no one should ever have to go through.


I’m not one to posit any answers to this conflict. I never have been, and never will. The only thing I’ve been trying to do for the past three years is to work with Palestinian teachers in Gaza on teaching children about human rights. Respect for each other, equality for boys and girls, tolerance, strengthening links with communities, and learning to resolve conflicts peacefully (well, the small interpersonal kind at any rate). I think of the bombs raining down on the skies of Gaza and wonder about the futility of teaching any of that in the first place. But then again, even in times of relative peace (or at least non-violence), children were still eager to learn about human rights, despite living under an oppressive regime (I learned quickly that saying “Hamas” in public was akin to saying “Lord Voldermort” in the early days of Harry Potter’s stay at Hogwart’s). I suppose there should never be a reason not to teach anyone about human rights, even if they don’t have many to begin with.

As is often the case, it’s so difficult to move forward and teach children human rights values when they are surrounded by circumstances that counter everything human rights aspire to achieve. As a teacher working in Syria told me a couple of months ago, “Yes we can teach children about human rights, but what about the people who are dropping the bombs?” Or to put it another way, as Ralph Fiennes says as the concierge Gustave in the movie The Grand Budapest Hotel which I recently watched to turn my switch off and forget about misery, “You see, there are still faint glimmers of civilization left in this barbaric slaughterhouse that was once known as humanity. Indeed that’s what we provide in our own modest, humble, insignificant… oh, fuck it.”

Tell it like it is, Gustave.

I have to believe in the faint glimmers Gustave mentions, and try my best to leave out his last three words. I’ll probably go back to Gaza one day, and see friends whose lives have been fractured, and knowing them they will continue to search for happiness and peace and a life of dignity every way they can, but the anguish of these past days will stay with them forever. Right now, I don’t think any of them have them have the option to turn off their switches. But for those of us who can show our support, we should. Taking to social media is one way, demonstrating in the streets another, or even signing a petition – here’s one for the Canadian government to take a stronger stance on forging peace. Does any of that ease the suffering – maybe, maybe not. But as a Palestinian friend once said to me, quoting Martin Luther King, Jr., “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”


Peace.