Sunday, April 5, 2015

A. Rothchild 3/24 p3 - 3/26 p1 & 2 post #8

Passport toilet paper   

 Blog post: 3/24/15 part three
There is a photo hanging in my home of a juicy looking orange hanging from a tree; the fruit is pierced by a large screw, a brutal metaphor for the reality that is Gaza and one of many powerful photos and paintings by Mohammed Musallam, a 41year old artist born in Gaza. 
We are driving north, past Jabalia to his home in Beit Lahiya, 15 kilometers from Israel. He and his brothers have rented an apartment distant from the border where the family flees in times of war; last year there were 50 people crammed into the one apartment.  We turn down a dirt road, his home faces a large empty lot, homes destroyed in the 2012 war.  In 2014 his next door neighbor was bombed and killed, another lost his legs. In 2008 IDF came into Mohammed’s house for 10 days, destroying things, cutting up his paintings; he shows us a canvas that still has the foot print of an Israeli boot, “the most moral army in the world.” You must understand how dangerous art can really be.
We enter the high walled gate into a Garden of Eden filled with irony and political satire, a meat grinder is part of a planter with a row of cactus and succulents, a mishmash of found objects, mostly dolls and children’s toys creates a collage that is at once a tribute to childhood and to its destruction.  The air is filled with the perfume of jasmine, grapes and figs are growing magically in the midst of desolation, and a collection of lively chickens cluck in a large coop.  Mohammed is both passionate and impish, outraged at the world around him, filled with social and political commentary.  He has made a candle holder out of a teargas canister, a chandelier where the bulbs are replaced by candles.  In 2008 the Israelis cut all the electrical cables and things have been pretty dicey since, the local electrical station was bombed in 2014. He has electricity three to six hours per day and has gone for 30 days without electricity.  All the food in the refrigerator rotted, needless to say. He could use a generator but fuel is too expensive. He photographed a toilet, the toilet paper is made of a roll of Palestinian passports, the passport covers are used as armrests on a chair, birds’ nests nestle in bullet holes.

His children range in age from three to twelve, the five year old insists on sleeping with her parents and the kids have had issues with bedwetting, a classic PTSD symptom. He remarks, “War is terrible when you have children.” He studied in Nablus and Cairo and is three months from his PhD, but unable to get the critical permit to Egypt. He paints and teaches fine arts at Al Aqsa University. He struggles to get permits to do exhibits in Europe.
Mohammed’s mother lives on the second floor, his family on the third, and he has a studio on the ground floor where we sit. His wife has an Algerian passport but chooses to stay.  “It has become normal.  I find beauty, happiness, family, there is no choice, this is not courage.” We nibble a sweet fruit combo and enjoy his lively children, the youngest has a devilish personality and keeps her parents busy. As we explore the wild jumble of found objects and striking paintings, Mohammed says, “We are normal, we are people… we are a small country, we have to live together, there is no choice.  He has a gallows sense of humor: “six hours of gas, six hours of electricity, 60% of our salaries, six days every two months the border is open.”  Six is their lucky number. He worries, “Israel feeds hate, creating militants.  I am an artist.  I don’t want to fight.” He finds in his art both the intense paradoxes and the beauty around him. It is a terrible shame that he has to struggle to share his talent, his humor, and his passion with a world that desperately needs more men like Mohammed.
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Sunshine, sand, and post assault dysphoria

Blog post 3/26/15
In another universe, driving along the coast of the Mediterranean would be one of those vacation dreams filled with fresh fish and relaxing moments baking in the sun, but we are driving to Khan Yunis, a city in the south of Gaza, and in particular to the eastern villages of Serij and Abueteama which bear the unique tragedy of leaning up against the Israeli border. Nahed, a high energy well-spoken administrator from Palestinian Medical Relief Society, the largest medical NGO in Palestine, is taking us on a tour of their facilities and the realities in the post war south.

First we pass the “harbor” where rows of colorful boats are docked, victims of the crippling siege and the shrinking safety zone for fisherman. The Sea Road takes us from the middle area to the south, past the glorious blue water beckoning deceptively to our right. The Mediterranean is at once a liberating vision of life beyond Gaza, of potential escape and freedom, and at the same time, an impenetrable wall of the prison.

The road is intermittently paved and dirt, we see the now familiar houses turned to rubble, massive bomb craters, the empty aspirational “4 Seasons Resort.” A river of raw sewerage drains into the sea just adjacent to a solitary swimmer. The smell is sickening. We speed past empty farmland, a colorful resort designed for the staff of The Open University where classes are offered online for Gazans that want a degree but must continue to work. Young boys are running around in the front of the UNRWA Al Balah Elementary School, we pass shacks of corrugated metal, plastic, hanging rugs, ?favelas anyone. Boat skeletons, wandering sheep, scattered silent “resorts,” post assault dysphoria.

Nahed is narrating and answering our questions and I ask her something I have asked over and over again here.  I cannot find anyone who admits to supporting Hamas, in fact most Gazans I talk to are disgusted with Fatah as well as Hamas (not to mention Netanyahu, Obama, the list is long). I rarely see green flags or the occasional political poster. What is going on? Her response is brilliant in its simplicity and honesty.  Many Gazans, particularly post the 2014 assault, do not support Hamas leadership and are deeply unhappy with the current disastrous state of affairs in terms of the basic functioning of society. But if someone were a Hamas supporter, they would not tell me for the following obvious reasons.  I am already aware that the Gaza strip is crawling with collaborators, vulnerable young men recruited during stints in Israeli jails or in exchange for permits for medical care in Israel.  But more importantly, if someone’s opinion or photo inadvertently ended up on facebook or a blog post or some mainstream or social media, they would be vulnerable to a targeted assassination by Israeli forces, so this silence is a matter of survival. (Big ah ha moment).

The driver turns away from the sea into the Israeli Beach Camp, site of a former Jewish settlement evacuated with an implosion of national handwringing by the Israelis in 2005.  A cluster of modern apartment buildings comes into view, a gift from the Arab Emirates to Palestinians from border areas who lost their homes in 2008. They moved in last year, that would be six years of homelessness. The ride is becoming more of a jolting chiropractic experience, past rows of plastic greenhouses, olive groves.  It is starting to get really Mediterranean hot as we arrive at the PMRS mobile clinic, a small three room wooden house adjacent to a similar structure for social support sessions. Funded by Oxfam and Belgium, one general practitioner, two nurses, one lab tech, and a social worker come twice a month, seeing a collection of patients, doing very basic primary care (like there is no exam room), acute mostly non-serious illnesses, (lots of skin disease and scabies, hypertension), education (evacuation in case of attack, basic first aid). The services are all free, mostly women with resigned looks on their faces wait with their children.  We can see the no go “buffer zone” and nearby Israeli border.  A spy balloon hangs over us and in the moon scape of houses toppled over, shattered into massive fragments, the detritus of life’s minutia emerges from the rubble: pink snow suit, comb, electrical socket.  The birds are singing their little hearts out and thistle and a cheerful yellow flower spread over the landscape, the life force in action.

The rutted roads take us to Alzana, the sight of even more destruction, which at this point is a really challenging concept. There are families living in tents, people who were once farmers and fisherman and businessman. A sea of white hijabs emerges as high school girls in dark blue uniforms and backpacks walk home, faces smiling, laughing, just kids doing their thing. PMRS has a much more comprehensive clinic here and provides the only health care for the area. I have seen these clean, competent clinics before, staffed with dedicated doctors, nurses, and health workers, making a lot out of much-less-than-adequate.  The most striking observation for me is the wall in the hallway and the exam room riddled with bullet holes.  Israeli soldiers shot through the front door and through a window, it seems they were trying to take out a dangerous otoscope and the nearby scale. Attacking a medical facility generally falls under the category of war crime.

We talk with a warm ob-gyn, she is seeing more anemia, malnutrition, miscarriages and premature labor.  There is a problem with early marriage of the 15 year old variety and not much contracepting. Women prefer birth control pills, but that does require a functioning pharmacy supply system and the ability to get to said functioning pharmacy. The clinic offers rehabilitation and has seen a marked increase in cases since the war, compounded by the consequences of the siege such as late care and lack of follow up due to financial and physical barriers. PMRS is taking care of 250 patients in the eastern village of Khan Yunis.  Most of the victims are women and children and most of the disabilities are amputations of arms or legs due to war trauma. In past years, Palestinian society looked upon disabled people as shameful and hid them from sight, but PMRS has done a powerful campaign to integrate people with disabilities into normal society and to provide physical therapy and occupational therapy. Little cups of bitter Arabic coffee appear.  

The challenges are immense: electricity is erratic and only available for a few hours per day.  What happens to people who depend on electrical beds, electric wheelchairs, elevators, medications that require refrigeration? Some folks are so poor they cannot afford transportation to the clinic, or so uneducated and overstretched by large families that PMRS makes many home visits, bringing the care to them. PMRS is committed to honoring the rights of all people to health care access. This program started in 1994 with Medicin San Frontier and focuses on direct care as well as advocacy for disability rights. The other compounding issue is that in the past, international donors were much more interested in funding war injuries than congenital disability; care and attitudes followed the financing.

Speaking of international donors, we are back wandering in the rubble and ruins of this neighborhood and Nahed takes us to a community of donated caravans from Australia. There are rows of numbered trailers, a la Katrina, and we are invited to tour the “homes.” Each trailer seems to have three “rooms” and a bathroom, we see piles of mattress, tiny neat kitchens, and evidence that families are crowded together in small spaces.  One frustrated man gestures to his “house.”  As we enter, the stench of sewerage is overpowering.  The toilet has overflowed, and a thin layer of dirty water coats the bathroom and has spread into the kitchen.  (Did I mention that people eat and sleep on the floor?) It seems that when the caravans were built there was no real sewer system put in place, and whatever hole in the ground the sewerage drains into is now full and backing up into the home. This seems like some kind of monumental error of judgement.  Suddenly a man, perhaps in his 30s, starts yelling at us; he is angry that another group of (white) international humanitarian types is touring this encampment and we have not brought any solutions, money, plans to fix the disaster.  Nahed apologizes to us as we rapidly retreat, but it is clear to me that he should be angry, that I am from the country that funded and supported this catastrophe, that perhaps I should be ashamed that I come and stare and take photographs, and I can offer him nothing but my voice which is far from useful when your kitchen smells like a cesspool.

We head off to the PMRS clinic in Jabalia Camp, much better equipped, multiple programs and specialties, where we interview a dedicated physician, trained in Russia and Belgium and committed to providing care to a desperately poor population battered by Israeli assaults, poverty, chronic disease and the internal dysfunctions of Palestinian (non)governance. The health care (non)system is a disconnected patchwork of institutions and providers from the Ministry of Health, NGOs, UNRWA, and private clinics. They do not communicate with each other and patients often bounce between systems. He notes that the situation “is not too bad.  If there were no external players we would be okay.”  He also adds that under the current “situation” he cannot ask his patients to stop smoking, “It is better to smoke than to hit your child.”

We Are Not Numbers

Blog post 3/26 part two
Because Gaza is so isolated with the long standing blockade and constricting siege, visitors are often asked to multitask as sherpas, bringing suitcases filled with needed medicines, children’s books, toys, gifts from relatives living in the US (connected by SKYPE but without the human opportunity for physical contact), chocolate in utterly inadequate quantities, and other assorted gifts as acts of solidarity and support.

So I find myself stuffing 20 copies of Gaza Writes Back into my bulging suitcase and an envelope from the publisher, Just World Books, to the editor of this remarkable collection of short stories by young Gazans who write about their experiences during Operation Cast Lead. Refaat Alareer joins me the first night in the Marna House restaurant, a lovely place to meet, talk, and inhale the sweet perfumes of hooka.
I am well rewarded for my efforts. He refers me to Maisam Abumorr, the Gaza coordinator of We Are Not Numbers, a project established by a US freelance writer, Pam Bailey, to develop young Gazans who aspire to be writers in English.  Maisam invites me to a discussion with a group of college students at the WANN office which is provided by an NGO, Euro-Mid Observor of Human Rights.  I learn that this NGO has just published a report on the use of Palestinian civilians as human shields by Israelis during the 2014 invasion entitled Israeli Matrix of Control

Maison emails me “a few topics that you might want to discuss with our group” and I am totally intrigued at the level of sophistication and their interest in my Jewish and medical background.  (How are your stereotypes about Gaza doing?)

  1.  In the preface of your book, Broken Promises, you acknowledge how hard it is to reach beyond "the choir" when writing about Palestine. What advice would you give us, Palestinians in Gaza, about how to best tell our stories so that people beyond the sympathetic activist community will read and absorb?
  2.  What kind of messages and stories were most effective in opening your own eyes, as a Jew, to the perspective of the "other"? We'd love to hear some examples.
  3.  You are trained as a physician. When, how and why did you become a writer as well?
  4.  You also are a filmmaker. Many people think video is much more powerful than the written word. How you view the advantages of both, and the continuing role of written stories?
  5.  Now that you are in Gaza, after the war, what do you think are the most common myths about Gaza that we need to help dispel through our stories?

The room is crowded with over 30 students, men and women, and I decide I will just launch into my personal journey, invite questions and see what happens.  The hour and a half is an extraordinary sharing of information, attitudes, and controversies that range from how to write well, what is inspiration and how to hone your craft, to issues of publishing, social media, and  websites. We debate the history of the region, the use of language to shape ideas, the role of writers in society; the students are thoughtful, passionate, and eager.  The most interesting moment for me comes when we discuss what does it mean to resist oppression, how to honor the right of all oppressed peoples to resist, is violent resistance ever effective, what is the cost, and how the voices of powerful writers are important components to a resistance movement.  We ended with the potent understanding that in the age of the internet and social media, writing is a formidable method of not only informing the international community and changing the political conversation, but also actually breaking the siege of Gaza. 

The good news is that this program is looking for writers to mentor students and review their work and I leaped at the opportunity to join the mentorship program and perhaps contribute in some small way to the personal growth of a young Gazan writer and to the political challenges that we face now together.   

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