Still Life: Scenes in Gaza Time

Discovery He discovered suddenly that Gaza had a sea-a big sea too. It was blue-like a dark-colored painting-and in the evening the sun resembled a giant orange plunging into the watery abyss as it disappeared into the sea.

Similarly, he discovered that a few kilometers from the shore a number of ships rode the waves at the heart of the sea and that their lights shone by night, like street lamps, illuminating a path through the sea. It was unmarked but afforded him an avenue to see far away.

He also discovered that the taxi fare from his home to the sea was merely a shekel, that the distance took five minutes by taxi and a quarter of an hour by foot, that the shore was only a few meters from his office, and that if he stood by its window he could imagine full well that he might touch the wave's foam.

He discovered that the sweet-potato vendor had a horse he would bring to the beach when he called out to customers, some of whom bought from him while others entertained him with their conversations and chatter. Girls surely no older than twenty discovered their femininity as they stood facing the sea. Their hands tried to catch the breeze as if they were petitioners in some ancient prayer. Youths continued playing despite the darkness, which had begun to envelop the sands, which were wet from sipping the waves. The tents and umbrellas dotting the beach were enveloped by the silence of those who had fled the city's din.

In his mind's eye he saw how in his childhood he had waited for the weekend, when the whole family went to the shore. His father would have reserved a felluca to carry them over the waves. Then his father would buy a type of sea bream called "diniis" from fishermen who sat cleaning their nets on the sand after a night at sea. He himself would light the fire that was a precursor to greeting the scent of roasting diniis as it wafted to passersby. Meanwhile his grandmother, with her own wooden chair, would sit facing the water, looking north, toward that area where she had spent her childhood in another city. Her shadow would stretch along the shore like a thought swimming through her mind. He remembered how he would draw a fat blue line in his school notebook and then scatter yellow butterflies across the surface of the motionless, watery depths. He realized that it was no accident that his feet had carried him to the expansive sea.

Disengagement The indolent policeman sat at the street corner of the major intersection where the traffic signal was always on the blink, whether because the electricity was cut, as happened more often than not, the apparatus was malfunctioning, or because the municipal employee had slipped up and forgotten to adjust the control system.

There was always a reason.

As car horns competed to make the most noise, the policeman crossed one leg over the other, oblivious to the pandemonium the traffic jam at the intersection was creating.

Three cars had to collide and four young men and a child had to die before the policeman paid attention, uncrossed his legs, and stood up to direct the traffic, perhaps after it was too late.

Some Very Routine Things Three children are playing in the alley. The woman is hanging out the laundry on a line stretched beside the wall of her house. A radio in a nearby window strikes the hour to announce the news broadcast. A lady leaves her house, carrying an empty basket. Perhaps she's on her way to the market. At the end of the alley, two adult men sit on small wooden chairs. A cat passes by, calmly yet cautiously, hugging the wall. Small birds are twittering inside a cinchona tree that peers out from a house courtyard there. A shadow perhaps of a lady-as suggested by the rounded breast-flows from the end of the alley. From inside one of the homes comes the sound of a young man loudly reading something that seems related to ancient history, possibly in preparation for university examinations. The cat continues to slink along the wall. The children toss their ball near the woman hanging out the wash. She casts them censorious looks before one of them grabs the ball and they calmly resume their game. The sun has passed beyond the eastern flank of the sky and disappeared behind some houses. The sparrows are no longer chirping and the radio's sound is drowned out by the engine's roar descending from above, from where the sun used to be. All necks are craned as people look to the sky, where the airplane soars overhead, like an alarming mosquito. The boys' ball is also flying in the air.

Everything-even the ball-comes to a halt, frozen . . .

In the air.

An Ancient Painting They carried the man, wrapped in a white shroud, and the long street was packed with thousands of people chanting like schoolchildren at morning roll call. They bore him proudly on their shoulders. The sun's disk shone fiercely, and-majestic but distraught-the women followed, clustering around one woman (perhaps it was his mother) who had not yet recovered from the shock of the loss. The schoolchildren had obviously left their desks. A police car containing a plump man led the whole procession. A few young men had tied kufiya kerchiefs around their necks and others raised aloft embroidered banners. Loudspeakers blared out songs, a man's voice incited people to outrage, and residents rushed from their homes to join the awe-inspiring procession. A foreign journalist stood beside a young man who held four flags and seemed to be asking about his feelings. The youth walked away from the journalist without responding. The journalist's face looked pale. Generously distributing their images, cameramen from the news agencies moved their cameras from the shrouded body on the men's shoulders, to the mourning women, the angry youths, and the men trying to rise above their pain and sorrow. No one noticed the girl looking down from the window of her home at the end of the street. She was weeping and kissing a small picture. Perhaps he had given it to her before he died. Who could say? The long distance was traversed. The lengthy journey was concluded, and the area seemed empty-except for a young woman looking out of a small window as tears like tiny icicles fell from her eyes onto the small picture, which might have been the painting that he had left for her, for everyone.

A Drowning Incident The wave was ferocious. Whitecaps and spume washed over the boys' bodies as they splashed each other. At the horizon, three seagulls headed west. There was no indication at the horizon that the Mediterranean Sea would ever end. The sun began to sink lower, looking ever huger and fierier round its circumference. It seemed a tree's leaf dangling over a valley's abyss. The shore was so crowded that an onlooker might have thought everyone in Gaza had quit their homes and set up camp on the coast, leaving their houses empty. The sea was the only place they could go to shield themselves against July's grueling heat. From the sand rose tents that women and girls frequented, and three young men daringly ventured far out to sea. Their hands could be seen rising above the whitecaps as if they were calling for help. The old woman said, somewhat dispassionately, "The young men are drowning." But no one heard her. The lifeguard in the wooden cabana, which stood like a huge boulder on the shore, was snacking on seeds when he suddenly noticed the three boys' hands requesting his assistance. He postponed his response for a time, since he thought this might be a joke, as usual. He liked to save other people, especially when he could successfully revive a person everyone else thought dead. He imagined the esteem he would gain, the admiring glances, and the occasional winks from the girls who viewed him as the knight of their dreams. That was intoxicating. All the same, he dreaded serious incidents, because they were fraught with dangers and problems, should he fail. This time he decided to wait, because it might be nothing more than a prank. He continued cracking open seeds as his eyes continued to study the distant wave. Then he decided to run into the water. The old woman whispered, "The young men are drowning."

He was forced to race. His feet reached the water's cold turbulence, but his eyes lost their focus on the wave. The hands were no longer visible. There was nothing but the breaking wave's froth. The water tickled his body. He shook his head as he turned back toward the shore. Perhaps the three boys had been able to make it back in and had saved themselves.

He rejected the alternative, telling himself, "The sea's calm today."

Traffic Jam The major intersection at the center of the city is impassable. As a result, traffic has come to a standstill on all the central streets in the city-from the nearest to the farthest. Under these circumstances, chaos has spread through the neighborhoods and districts, extending tumult to alleys and side roads, so that the city's narrow, twisting vital arteries have been shut down.

An eyewitness told a local station that a family quarrel between two clans led to the closing of the intersection. Another witness asserted to a rival station that the affair was unrelated to any family quarrel or their grievances. All it amounted to was that vendors' carts from the Firas market and their vehicles snarled traffic at the far end of the street, which narrows toward the market. A correspondent from Palestine TV said he had witnessed a police car, which was pursuing a civilian vehicle, rush past at an insane speed. He concluded that the authorities were deadset on imposing the rule of law, no matter the cost. He promised citizens that the traffic jam was temporary and that the crisis would be resolved. A quarter of an hour later, however, the pot-bellied government official stood in front of an Arab satellite channel and declared that foreign factions were blowing the situation out of proportion for subversive reasons. All it amounted to was that a horrendous traffic accident had occurred and the national government, working hand-in-hand with the municipal government, had the situation under control. All the same, a correspondent for another satellite channel peered out from the screen a quarter of an hour later to say that there had been fatalities and casualties. He concluded his urgent report by saying that his source was a member of the emergency staff at al-Shifa' Hospital.

Who knows what really happened?

The Sign The large store's sign said that it was "The City Bakery." A week later another sign said the building was "The People's Supermarket." Approximately a month after that a new sign said it housed a foundry. This time the sign lasted more than a month before another placard appeared. This said, "Kebab Restaurant." It lasted, in turn, less than two weeks. Then a new sign said the building was the "Elegance Boutique."

It seems that this new sign had better luck, since it stayed up for two months before the shop window was surmounted by a retraction, since the establishment had now become a stationery shop. A week later, or perhaps a day less than that, the sign said it was a shop that sold cassettes. The signboard ornamenting the shop's façade three weeks later suggested that it was a shoe store.

Now the small sign attached to the shop's door says, "Store for Rent."

Curfew Solitude has taught me to love specific details. Thus I can report at length about a cup of tea and observe how steam rises from it. I see how it evaporates like a cloud on the windowpane. I have also come to believe that the airplane's drone sounds like the call of the goldfinch. The ambulance's siren is actually nothing more than a wrong note played by the pianist in the adjoining house. The tree that no longer shades the end of the street has gone for a stroll with her girlfriends. I'm fiddling around with my old papers because I'm searching for the inscription on my photograph when I was a child. I have plenty of time, so I can converse with my mother's picture, which hangs on the wall. She must miss the sound of my voice, just as I miss hers. I don't know how to spend this prolonged period while I am held prisoner by the four walls, forbidden to go out on the street.

Cloud It was summer.

It wasn't literally summer, but the sun was more ferocious than August's fiery heat. As a point of fact it was March.

He was walking somewhat clumsily along al-Nasr Street in his black coat with the ash-gray collar. The street was empty except for pedestrians' faces draped in fatigue and weighed down by the dust of despair-like pale sketches in a pupil's school notebook. His arms twitched behind his back with a nervousness he couldn't conceal.

The sky was clear, devoid of clouds that day except for the one that floated through his memory where it was buffeted by the wind of longing, making him think of the girl he had left back there when he came for a summer visit to his family, only to find himself unable to return once the crossings and exits closed.

When she had accompanied him on his visit to Gaza the previous summer, she had told him that-out of all the streets of Gaza--she liked this one best; she didn't know why. But she liked walking along it together with him. Gaza had looked beautiful then!

This cloud inundated his heart with pain. He didn't weep. He merely walked along al-Nasr Street, seeing no one, speaking to no one. He would walk down the street in the evening. Then he would go to bed, oppressed by the heavy cloud in his heart.

Gaza! Everything quieted down.

Gaza became like an old woman whom time had exhausted as she sat by the traffic light, seeing nothing but a blinking light-without being able to determine its color.

From time to time a sound suggesting that she was still alive would escape her or she might twitch in a way showing that blood could almost reach the muscles of her body.

The pedestrians, automobiles, large trucks, and the sound of a radio from the window of an eighth-floor apartment all merely left the impression that no one was concerned about this senile old woman.

Everything became as quiet as that!

The Gardener At noon, at the end of the street, he would stand like a gardener, waiting for the droves of girls to leave the secondary school. He pretended he was pruning the flowers his mother grew beside the house's doorway. When she emerged, clutching her schoolbooks with one hand, he would smile as sweetly as a blossom opening for the first time. She would exchange a stealthy laugh with him to keep the girls from noticing the light flowing between her lips and his eyes. She didn't realize that their story had become front-page news.

Today he will stand outside at noon again, although not as a gardener tending the flowers. Instead he is a statue, motionless because baffled when all the girls emerge-except for her-so that the school's gate is about to close, without her showing her face. For countless days he will stand like a motionless statue in hopes that the gate may offer her to him.

How could he know that-unbeknownst to her-on her sixteenth birthday, a suitor had come to ask for her hand?

One of the girls will soon approach to tell him the story. (Not me, of course. . . .)

A Shadow in the Sea He loved silence so much it seemed his favorite pastime, and when he did open his mouth he spoke only of his friends who had drowned.

For this reason he loved the sea-because it reminded him of them.

He spent half his life sitting on the shore in the evening, positioning a wicker chair to face the water, close enough that his toes could almost touch the waves lapping the beach. No sooner had he finished one cigarette than he rolled another. Each of these brought him a story about one of his friends who had drowned. Whenever the water touched his toes it excited him and his body trembled with delight. Then his cigarette would drop from his fingers and he would roll another one.

A pedestrian passing by on the street, which was parallel to and elevated slightly above the sea, could see no more of him than a shadow, which ran across the sea, of a man seated in an enormous chair.

The Other Impossibility There's only one thing that cannot happen in Gaza this morning.

The radio might announce the army's withdrawal. A politician with a pot belly might stand up to speak about a ceasefire. The mayor might offer citizens another basket of promises about improved electric and water service and about paving the streets. Perhaps government minister so-and-so will fiddle with the collar of his suit jacket while stating that the government has been able to decrease the unemployment and poverty rates, which had risen continuously over the ten previous years (without this meaning that it's true).

It is also possible that a member of the Legislative Council may appear suddenly in the street even though the residents of the neighborhood have not seen him-except on television-since he collected their votes in the election.

Similarly it is not impossible that the head of a state considered important to Gaza may suddenly come to announce his nation's support for the city's residents' efforts and its understanding of their needs as well as to make (the check is in the mail, of course) a financial contribution to help overcome the crisis.

Along with this, it's possible that aircraft will return to strafe the city again, killing tens of people, like any other day, and that funerals and processions will begin to tint the city's cheeks once more.

But!

There's only one thing that cannot occur in Gaza in the midst of all this congestion. The young man standing on the street corner will not be able to locate the girl he met some days ago in a taxi. He's under the impression that she takes the same vehicle every day and does not realize she had passed that way by chance.

How many chance occurrences are we granted in our lives?

Attention He drank his coffee quickly. There was something about the clamor outside the window that suggested the occurrence of an event that deserved his attention. People were shouting many phrases, and he could hear the first word or perhaps some insignificant word he did not understand from the middle. He drew closer to the window, coffee cup still in hand, feeling an irrepressible desire to go out on the street.

It was easy to imagine that residents of the refugee camp had taken to the streets for some important reason, but his morning coffee's appeal was also irresistible. He told himself that he should drink the coffee quickly. Then he would go out just in time, also quickly.

He had barely finished the last drop in the cup when the uproar died away and calm spread its arms through the neighborhoods behind the house. He hastened out to the street, which was empty of everything except the house-walls' shadows plastered over the alleyways.

The Shop His small shop was the only thing remaining on the street from childhood days. Everything else had changed. The grocery with the wooden shelves had become a supermarket with pretensions of style and modernity. The man who sold packs of cigarettes from a carton now had a wooden stall with enough space for tens of international brands. The abandoned house where we used to play had been reclaimed by an heir who had built a two-story edifice there. The blacksmith's shop had closed, because its din annoyed people. Its location housed a furniture store and another one for computer games. Even the young man who inherited the coffeehouse from his father had placed five computers in a corner, turning it into a "net-café."

At his small shop, he sat on the doorstep repairing stoves and household appliances accompanied by his steel hammer, which tapped like an echo carrying us back to our childhood. Thirty years ago, when I first burst from my mother's arms and began to walk along the streets, I found him sitting there. His mustache has changed color over time, and his hair has become somewhat scraggly. His hands are always busy, and his eyes return the greeting of passersby in the street. The warmth of his eyes' smile varies according to the extent of his familiarity with the person greeting him.

He smiles at me with a warmth that reveals a love extending back to my childhood.

A Normal Death Our elderly neighbor has died.

She died this morning. We heard no cry or lamentations emanating from her house. No hearse arrived to carry away her frail body. No wagons from paramilitary associations passed by to announce her death. She simply did not leave her house to sit and gossip with the other women of the neighborhood, as she normally did each morning. That sufficed to suggest that she had departed for eternity.

She kept warm three dreams that never hatched.

She dreamed that her only son would be released from prison after fifteen years in its dark corridors.

She dreamed that her husband, who had disappeared after the war, would suddenly return, even though she had heard nothing from him and did not know whether he was dead or alive.

She dreamed that her sister, from whom she had been separated since the Catastrophe, would visit her, although she had not seen her for fifty years or more-since the fates cast her into the refugee camps in Lebanon.

These dreams had not been able to break out of the thick shell of this age.

Her married daughter, who lived in Qatar, suggested to her every summer that she should come to visit her, at least for a change of scene. She would always answer the same way, "It wouldn't do for your father to return or for your brother to get out of prison or for your aunt to visit and not find me home."

She died, waiting at home.

We did not hear any cry or wail, because no one else lived in the house with her. This morning she merely did not come out to sit by the house's door to chatter with the neighborhood women.

She died this morning. The sun did not rise for her!

From Still Life: Scenes in Gaza Time. © Atif Abu Sayf. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright © 2006 by William Maynard Hutchins. All rights reserved.