Sunday, March 29, 2015

Alice Rothchild 3/23/15 – (Parts 2, 3, 4)

part two: Kindergarten: see German definition: Children’s garden

Wejdan Diab, Marwan Diab’s sister, welcomes me to the Meera Kindergarten in Gaza City where the walls are painted Disney bright; I spot many photos, and murals of dolphins, giraffes, a windmill in Holland (?) with a pond and a duck, dress up clothes including large yellow and white flowers, dabke outfits. The school has morning and afternoon shifts. It all looks quite “normal” but this is Gaza where gardens of any kind are actually quite hard to sustain.
Wejdan’s face has this disarming blend of joy, laughter, and intense tragedy. Behind the raucous din of children playing, singing, and rote repetition as teachers and children shout to be heard, she shares photos of the destruction of the school during the last war: broken glass, bullet holes, and fractured building parts.  She explains that if a child is six years old, he has already experienced three wars, or perhaps his mother was pregnant during the first one.  “It was very difficult for all of us, every day thanks God I am alive.  The bombing was terrible everywhere, my kindergarten was partially destroyed, including windows and doors.”
In July 2014 the Israeli forces repeatedly bombed the city of Shejaia, east of Gaza, to Dresden-like conditions. Sixty survivors sheltered at the kindergarten, the traumatized children destroyed many of the toys, were tormented by nightmares and bed wetting, but Wejdan and her staff worked hard. “I wanted the children to be safe, we made arts and crafts to help children.  They had no toys, these children are suffering.” The survivors brought bits of toys from under the rubble and they painted them, a guitar singing, a child living in a tent drew her toy on fire, one placed her doll’s head in the center of a picture surrounded by death.
Every day the kindergarten staff made parties for the children, brought in clowns; some children refused to go outside, some were afraid of the sky or particular noises, but they are now getting better.  And then there are the kids who lost their parents, one father who was a journalist was assassinated by an Israeli missile. He was covering a multi-missile attack in Shejaia which included attacks on two ambulances and rescue workers.  A quick look at the internet reveals this: []
His child brought the father’s helmet to school and “drew the father at paradise eating apples.” The journalist was active in the school, teaching the students to use cameras and be reporters. Wejdan’s heartbreaking collection of photos are stored in a big plastic folder, Mickey Mouse and Friends on the cover with Daffy Duck and Goofy. Wejdan urges me to follow the kindergarten on facebook: meeragaza. [FYI dear reader, it is 9:00 am at the Marna House where we actually have running water, guilty hot showers, a decent restaurant….and the electricity is flickering on and off. I lose internet connection with each disconnection; the simplest things are most challenging.]
Wejdan takes out a plastic folder stuffed with papers; she conducted a survey when the fighting ended and sent the letters to the fathers and mothers of the children.  We scan through the letters as I feel the heavy weight of human suffering in its most intimate details: These are the experiences of kindergarteners.
After war, is anybody injured? Anybody having bad feelings? Is anyone is scared? What happened to homes?
Answers: Cannot sleep. God I do not want to die. We hold her. When she sits alone she talks to herself about dying. The home was destroyed and she is afraid of bombing. She doesn’t want to go alone to any room. Noises frighten her and there is a lot of crying.  A lot of stories in their minds and they are talking about what they see on TV and the dead and the bombing. Daughter has strange behavior, stressed, nervous, sad, afraid the war will come again. She says that maybe the teachers will not be able to help the children, only feel safe with mother and father. Nightmares, going to the doctor because of bad feelings. Kitchen is destroyed, living room destroyed.  Bed wetting, crying, afraid at night
Wejdan is counterintuitively cheerful, chuckling while recounting the horror. “I left my home near here. There is an Islamic University branch nearby and maybe it will be attacked.” She joined her relatives at her family home. And then she adds: “All the children are suffering, 170 children were at the school,” some were unable to talk, became mute and their hair fell out.
I am ready for quiet sobbing in some small dark place, but we take a tour of the school where the children are energetic, lively, curious, and each child who experienced some horrific trauma or loss is invited to come up and shake my hand.  I do not know if they understand why. The brightest moment comes with a high spirited performance of a kindergarten dabke troupe, the boys and girls are in costume, beautifully synchronized, high stepping, waving their arms, music blaring, celebrating their national heritage.  I feel the nurturing of samoud and a kind of determination to endure that will serve these children well in this most traumatic of places.
Wejdan invites Kareema Raian, the mother of the murdered journalist, Ramy Raian and the grandmother of two children who are at the school to talk with me. Kareema’s eyes betray a sense of deep sadness and loss and the tears come quickly.  She explains that her son was going out to take pictures of the Israeli destruction, to expose the truth; she prayed, “allah akbar,” and begged him not to go.  He pinched her cheek and “that was the end.”

Kareema explains that they were told there would be no firing from 3:00-7:00 pm “so they said you can take stuff from the markets, so he went to the market.  He has no gun or anything, he is journalist only and when he take pictures, the plane killed him with 17 other people, three of them from one family.” She sits in her black abayah and hijab, dark lines under her eyes, and talks about the other people killed, one had a pregnant wife who later named her newborn after the infant’s dead father. Her hands twist at her tissues as she recalls Ramy’s wife calling him for lunch and “he said no, I want to take pictures, alhamdulillah. I will eat with the other journalist.”  An hour later he was dead, but she first thought he was injured, there were multiple phone calls, people coming to her home, and then her nephew saw the murder on television. She has no electricity, but that morning she dreamt that he died and saw him in a white jacket. “I prefer I dead, not him. He didn’t smoke, he was polite, he had two boys and two girls.”  She married him off at 17 because he was an only son and she wanted grandchildren.  The five and six year olds come in to the office, somewhat subdued and clearly still swimming in loss. Old souls already.
And the Israelis are already discussing the “next war.”

part three: Patriarchy, addiction, poverty and the crushing culture of violence: The constriction of women’s bodies and minds
The UN OCHA data is blunt: The 2014 military operation in Gaza left 302 women and 582 children dead, 10,870 wounded, (2,120 women and 3,303 children), and more than 450,000 people displaced from their homes, mostly women and children.  That humanitarian catastrophe was compounded by a severely distressed society strangled by years of blockade and siege, increasingly more fundamentalist Islamic culture and religious practices, and dramatic restrictions in options for everyone.
So how does that look up close and personal? Mariam Abu al-Atta, management administrator, and Israa Al Battrikhi, project coordinator, welcome me to the Aish Association for women with husbands who are mentally ill or addicted; these are the living and breathing families who have literally fallen off the curve. Fourteen women wait for us at a U shaped conference room with one girl and one boy snuggled close; the women are sketching on paper with colored pencils as part of their intake process. I estimate the age range is 30 to 50, although I could be monumentally off as women not surprisingly age prematurely under occupation and repeated trauma.  Everyone wears a hijab, most of the faces are not covered, everyone has a chance to tell her story and in subsequent weeks there will be group and individual sessions, various counseling, legal advice, job training, and other supports offered. At some point, almost every woman begins to weep, clutching tissues, and towards the end even our interpreter also bursts into tears. I am glad that even she has a limit to what she can absorb before losing her professional distance. Despite the lively persistent voices, the occasional twinkle in an eye or laughter (“maybe it would be better if our husbands just stayed in bed sleeping”), the amount of accumulated suffering in this room is stunning. 
I will summarize some of the themes that develop, though every woman’s story is intimately her own.
1.      Many of the men were diagnosed with mental illness either before or after marriage (don’t worry he will get better) and this was often compounded by drug addiction and disabilities, some related to work accidents.  Tramadol seems to be the drug of choice although there is some hashish as well. Many also had seizure disorders and a variety of mostly head injuries due to repeated falls, leading me to wonder about how diagnoses are made, the adequacy of treatment, and medical and psychological follow up which obviously in a health care system that is repeatedly assaulted and in a chronic state of collapse, is likely less than optimal.

2.      Many of the men steal from their families, lie, even sell their UNRWA coupons, and connive in various destructive ways to support their drug habits.  This leaves women responsible for the household without any economic means.

3.      The children also suffer from more than the average level of disease burden, probably related to the high level of marriage to first cousins and other close relatives, (big problem in Gaza where few can get a permit to leave and check out the rest of the gene pool) the unhealthy environment and toxic load from war (may of the young children have already lived through three major assaults), malnutrition, and lack of quality care.

4.      When women marry (often in their teens, some with extreme family pressure), they tend to move into their husband’s already overcrowded homes where grandparents, (think controlling mother-in-law who cannot see any fault in her son), multiple other siblings and their growing families are vying for a shrinking amount of space without privacy or healthy boundaries, jealousy and competition abound.  I think of the animal experiments where rats or was it fish or hamsters….are placed in shrinking cages until all end up attacking each other.  Well guess what happens to humans, especially when you throw in some addiction, war, death, and PTSD?

5.      Every woman reports verbal abuse, physical beatings and sometimes sexual assault from husbands, brothers-in-law, fathers-in-law and verbal and physical abuse of their children whom they try unsuccessfully to protect. One woman’s arm was bandaged due to a fracture after being pushed down the stairs.

6.      Poverty is rampant with husbands who are unable to work, families already stretched economically, and a reliance on the social affairs department. Women have sold all their nuptial gold to survive. There is no backup plan.

7.      The women are clearly depressed, one thinks of suicide, but then she thinks of her children, “We are not a normal family; all I want is one room that I own.” Even now, her children “only get one meal per day, using UNRWA coupons,” which her husband tries to sell. Many talked about wanting to educate their children in university and the difficulty in financing those dreams. Some see their children turning violent, out of control, addicted, and mirroring their fathers. The mothers desperately want to save them from that fate.

8.      The war in 2014 led families to move repeatedly, face extraordinary financial hardships, some babies were born, some were lost, families face marked reductions in electricity and drinkable water.

9.      The last woman had a daughter who married a man who became a drug addict. The daughter fled back to her family and hired the Palestinian version of a coyote who smuggled her and her five children through the tunnels to slip onto a boat to Italy and freedom.  The ship sank and the family was lost.  At this point we are all weeping.
When I sink into stereotypical thoughts about tyrannical Arab families and dominating mother-in-laws, and the repressive role of fundamentalist Islamic family relationships, I quickly remember the sexual abuse of children that has poisoned the Catholic Church, the 25% of women in the US who report sexual abuse, the rampant rape of women in our armed forces and college campuses, the appalling prevalence of domestic violence in our lovely enlightened Western societies, not to mention the unspoken crisis of domestic violence amongst ultra-orthodox Jewish families from Brooklyn to Jerusalem.  Let us not judge. What we do know is that the more crushing the economy and political landscape the more oppressed and constricted the lives of women will be. This is the task for feminists and all people who understand the intersections between war, patriarchy, psychological illness, domestic violence and the cultures that make this all possible.  The dedicated women of Aish are taking the first steps on a long and challenging journey and deserve our sisterly support.

part four:  I want you to see what is beautiful!
Through some personal connections in Detroit, I end up calling two cousins who live in Gaza City, planning to share with them my documentary film, Voices Across the Divide, which features some of their family, and to deliver a small gift from the Detroit branch of the diaspora.  Two well-dressed men arrive promptly at Marna House where I am staying; we sit together while I nosh on humus and lentil soup, although they do not eat, and soon they are inviting me for dinner the following evening.
(side note: while I am writing this at 1 am the hotel has just lost its electricity and it is really dark.  Where is that flashlight?)
After an arduous day, I plan to be “off” in the evening, but there are some moments that I need to share with you, if only because they contradict any preconceptions 99% of Americans have about those terrorists in Gaza who want to run Israel into the sea when they are not busy strapping explosives to their babies.
So, a man in a dark suit, with a warm face, thick black eyebrows and mustache, (I will call him Ahmad), arrives to take me to one of his family members.  It turns out he works in the Ministry of Health and had something to do with the granting of our permits to Gaza. He has advanced degrees in business administration.  (I never did actually figure out in this family who was related to whom but let’s just say they are all related or engaged and soon to be married.) The first striking thing about walking the irregular streets of Gaza at night is that there is no electricity; generators parked on the street roar and grind, burning hundreds of dollars of fuel to illuminate an apartment here and there or, just imagine, your refrigerator.  This is a real problem if you only have electricity 4-12 hours per day and forget about internet or TV, checking some tidbit on your smart phone (they do like to do that) or completing your engineering or English literature report for university due tomorrow. This also means that no elevators are working in case you are elderly or obese or disabled.
The apartment of relative #1 is richly decorated with lush green curtains and decorative upholstery, I am warmly greeted by Ahmad’s cousin who owns a toy store downstairs, and his playful, sniffling one year old son, sweet wife, new baby, mother, sister, and fiancé, a nurse at Shifa Hospital, (bombed in 2014) who offers me a cigarette. The conversation is all about family, the recent engagement party, the upcoming wedding.  I look at their photos and videos, they look at mine. When I show them a photo of my daughter’s chicken coop in Seattle, the response of these city folk is a big chuckle and “They look like angry birds!” Apparently phone games are more common than our clucking egg laying friends here). I drink Coca Cola and then tea with mint and protest the fancy glazed cake with all sorts of sugar frou frou that they have bought in my honor.  I guess in Gaza it is always best to eat dessert first. This visit is notable for its generosity and warmth and for its profound ordinariness, a normal family sharing a pleasant normal evening, lots of laughter, with a guest from a faraway land that they cannot possible reach.
We walk several irregular blocks, using the flashlight from Ahmad’s phone, past occasional clusters of young men and racing cars. I briefly consider the risks of being kidnapped, (I am told not by Hamas, but perhaps by some aberrant militant group in need of ransom money).  I am immediately embarrassed by such thoughts, but you know, it is really dark and I do not have a clue as to where I am going.
We hike up to Ahmad’s house, creep up irregular concrete stairs, which he has rigged with special bulbs that run off a battery and he proudly shows me the Rube Goldberg contraption that provides his home with regular electricity. His attractive and friendly wife is wearing ear muffs, (no hijab) because the newly acquired apartment is cold and bare, save for some plastic chairs and a table. A twinkly 1 ½ year old boy sprints and hops around the apartment at break neck speed.  He has some fascination with all things electrical or panels with on/off switches.  The kid is in constant motion and has a totally engaging smile. I love him instantly. He vaguely understands how to play ball, dances to some Disney song from years ago, but cannot stay still long enough to watch me perform my epic The Itsy Bitsy Spider. Maybe I have lost my touch.  I try sitting on the floor to no avail and soon name him Little Monkey. Ahmad’s wife serves coffee and we talk more about children and the lack of electricity, and how things felt during the war.
Apartment # 3 is a brief car ride away and this time there is a great leap forward in the number of relations, but let me say, the older wife looked beautiful in a turquoise hijab and heavily embroidered black and turquoise Palestinian dress, the men tended towards suits or some level of respectability, there were a lot of businessmen types, a lawyer who cannot practice since he has no recognized papers or credentials, and the two youngest college students could have stepped out of Harvard Square. There was much talk about how each person ended up in Gaza, was it a laissez passe, a travel document from Egypt, crawling through the tunnels, expulsion from you name the Arab country, some trained in the US, in any case, everyone is now trapped in Gaza and angry and frustrated about that, along with the lack of electricity, the wars, the crazy dysfunctional politics.  People want to talk about how much ISIL has nothing to do with Islam, how Islam is a religion of peace and tolerance; how Jews and Palestinians can easily get along and have in the past. There was a lot of reminiscing about the good old days of shopping in Tel Aviv and Israelis getting a good deal in Gaza City. When they found out I was Jewish, everyone was warm and accepting.  “You are shining, you are beautiful, you look like…(I think she was looking for something culturally appropriate here)…a menorah!” People support the BDS call and were in general utterly disappointed with the elected and non-elected leadership.   Everyone is sick of war and dreams of travel. 
The mother who is also a teacher has made a classic totally over the top food for an entire army Palestinian kind of meal: pre-meal frozen strawberry/lemon/sugar/vanilla thing (their own strawberries), then drink water, juice, and approach the bulging table cautiously.  Large platters piled with some kind of fried, breaded? chicken cutlets with garlic/olive oil/lemon sauce, rice and strips of beef with toasted almonds and delirious spices and some yogurt type sauce, two different salads with greens from their garden, divine thick French fries with parsley, some other meat ball (maybe or was it chicken) baked in a sauce…. And so it went.  I find a total of three different people heaping things on my plate if I let my guard down for an instant. I am assured that everything is healthy and they never throw food away, they eat it tomorrow.  And would I come out to the porch to sniff and admire all the herbs and petunias that are having a party out there too?  The mother explains she no longer cooks fish (spoiler alert, the entire Gaza Strip is on the sea coast and a major source of livelihood used to be fishing) because the fish are now all too small and polluted. Thank you Israeli navy and the ever shrinking fishing zones.
This family’s daughter is gorgeous, diminutive, helpful, and a university student studying IT. Her hair is thick and beautifully coiffed. The son, also very deferential and polite, has a thick bush of vertical hair ? a bit Elvis in the early years without the greasy kid stuff and everyone teases him.  He likes to be different. He feels very cat like, ready to pounce into action, his phone constantly ringing.  Because of the electricity shortage, friends call each other whenever anyone has internet and then everyone goes over to that apartment.  Sort of like electricity Bedouins I muse.  I am almost moved to tears when he tells me he is an architect student at university and I say to him, “How can you study architecture when you have no concrete?” He is filled with ideas to make Gaza a more beautiful place, to get rid of the boxy concrete buildings, he wonders if I have ever seen Central Park in New York City, he google mapped it and felt totally inspired.  I tell him about Olmstead’s Emerald Necklace in Boston and he is eagerly awaiting the next burst of electronic juice to get on the interweb.  He dreams of studying in Italy or Germany, “the birthplaces of architecture.”

His college friend who trained at the American International School in Gaza and looks like he could be from Minnesota, drives us all home in a clunky old van, through the dark brooding city.  He asks me when I will be free.  He earnestly explains that he wants to give me a tour of Gaza, the port, the beaches, “all the beautiful places” that no one ever sees. Now that would be really lovely. 

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