the short story project


Atef Abu Saif | from:English

The Drone Eats with Me – Diaries from a City Under Fire

Introduction by Maya Feldman

The text presented before us is from the book “The Drone Eats with Me: Diaries from a City under Fire,” a diary of a resident of Gaza during the 2014 Gaza war. Abu Saif, a Palestinian journalist, author and teacher from the Jabalia refugee camp, wrote every day about his family and neighbors living under the bombings of the Israeli army. His voice is among the few testimonials of what happened in Gaza during the war, and parts of his diaries have been published not only here in The Short Story Project, but in the New York Times, the Guardian and other magazines as well. The book was first published in the UK, and later in the United States and Germany. Three days from the complete diaries are presented here, not only due to the importance of the testimony they provide, especially for the Israeli audience, but also due to the quality of Abu Saif’s prose, bringing forth the voice of a father fearing for the safety of his children in a bombed city. In his introduction to book Noam Chomsky wrote: “This tragedy is heightened by the recognition that it is not a force of nature that must simply be endured, a conflict so complex that no escape can be found. Those who wish to know understand well how the horrors can be ended, how Gaza can become a flourishing seaside region of a land at peace, its courageous people free to live their lives as they have every right to do with the prison walls shattered. Further explanation seems only to sully what Atef Abu Saif conveys with such simple dignity and eloquence.” 

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Thursday 17th July

The First Truce

I wake to the news that Israel has declared a five-hour truce, beginning at 10am. The Palestinian Monetary Authority has also announced that, during these hours, the banks will open so people can receive salaries and withdraw cash.

It’s a gentle morning. The movement of the crowds in the street suggests people are happy; they finally have a few hours of normality after ten days of death. You see them heading out in all directions. I take a taxi to Palestine Square1and, on the way, the car window presents image after image of devastated buildings in strange black and white – like undeveloped negatives. Great twists of iron protrude from the concrete; chunks of masonry dangle from exposed ceilings, defying gravity, rubble of all kinds covers the ground. Dust clouds hang in the air, like curtains, as we drive into them. I can see blinds flapping in shattered windows above me, letting in what must be a forgiving breeze in this July heat.

A great iron door lies flat in the middle of the road, as if it’s just flown there from a nearby building. A satchel lies amid a scatter of books and notebooks, their pages fluttering in the wind like a schoolboy has just dropped them there after a dreaded exam. The street looks like a sculptor’s workshop, fragments everywhere, and yet the form of his subject is still deep in the stone, yet to reveal itself.

Houses on both sides of the street are still in the process of collapsing. Their destruction isn’t over yet; gravity has still to finish the missiles’ work. The dust has a smell to it; it’s hard to describe. The sound of women crying and kids screaming drowns out the normal street noises. But I see ahead of us hundreds of cars queuing to get through Jabalia souq, trying to find their way to the south of Gaza City.

Farmers have brought what remains of their produce from the wreckage of their farms. They must have sneaked back onto the fields, after the latest attacks, and picked what they could to bring it here this morning. From my taxi window, I can see the prices on the stalls going down faster than the progress of the traffic jam – clearly the stall holders want to sell every last vegetable by the time the truce ends. I can see the cucumbers, aubergines, and courgettes are all larger than normal as they’ve been left on the vine for days. Some farmland reaching up to the northern border has been abandoned completely and all its vegetables left to rot.

When we get to the main street in Jabalia town, it’s so crowded my taxi driver simply sighs and turns off the engine. At first I assume it’s a funeral procession or a demonstration, the throng is so thick. Then I realise it’s just people queuing for the banks and supermarkets – hundreds of them. Also, in amongst them, there’s a welfare organization distributing food. It takes my taxi 20 minutes to make its way down this street.

At last, I can see Palestine Square – the largest square in Gaza City and the true heart of the town. To the south-east of this square lies the Shuja’iyya quarter, to the east Toufah, to the south-west Zeitoun, to the north-west Rimal. On Omar al-Mukhtar Street, on the corner of the square, stands the early twentieth-century building that houses the Baladiat Gaza, the Gazan municipality building. I phone my friend, Salim, and suggest that I meet him at his office as I know Aed is heading there too. From there, we can walk to one of the main banks and catch up while we’re queuing. I tell the driver to drop me off at the start of Palestine Square so I can walk the rest of the way to Salim’s office. It’s my first chance to see the city centre after ten days of war. Today reminds me of one of the breaks between the curfews the Israeli army used to impose during the First Intifada. Jabalia Camp would be in lockdown, sometimes for months at a time, in that war.

The curfews meant that we couldn’t leave the house. But as boys we always found our own way of disobeying the army. We – my late brother Naeem and I – used to jump from the roof of our apartment block onto the next block so that we could play with friends. From rooftop to rooftop we would move along the street – like master criminals, expert cat burglars – just to spend a few hours playing games with our mates. It wasn’t without risk. Usually the curfew would last ten to twenty days, then the army would lift it for a few hours and people would be allowed to go out and buy food from neighbouring areas, like Beit Lahia or Jabalia town.

Whenever the curfew was lifted, the whole camp would be out on the streets; everyone would be running around, trying to do 20 jobs at once. People would struggle back to their homes, laden with as many groceries, bags of flour and cuts of meat as they could possibly carry. It was like a free-for-all. The image of women overloaded with bags and bags of food after three hours of frenzied shopping outside the camp is one I’ll always cherish. One of them was my mother, Amina. For me, she epitomised the Gazan spirit: resilience, indefatigability, resourcefulness – the spirit I see in front of me now in the crush of this first truce, in the people reclaiming simple details back into their lives, shaking off the dust of the last ten days and making the most of this island of peace. My mother and all the women of Gaza deserve a statue to commemorate their sense of survival. There have been statues to soldiers in Gaza – the Unknown Soldier who used to point north to lost lands before the statue was bombed in 2005, leaving just a plinth. There are statues dedicated to martyrs, like the memorial for the martyrs of the Mavi Marmaraon the beach. There are symbolic statues, like the phoenix in Palestine Square3. But there are no statues to the ordinary women of Gaza, the mothers and grandmothers, who really keep this city going: struggling each day with the rations imposed on their households; fighting with great, heavy bags when they’re lucky enough to be able to shop at all; making meagre ends meet to keep the family whole. They are heroes as much as anyone else. They should be commemorated in stone.

The horns of the cars, the shouting of the fruit sellers calling out prices, the bray of a donkey dragging a heavy cart behind it, the reproach of a mother telling her boy off for staring at everyone, the heat of July sun, the creaking of old shop doors opening and shutting every second, the constant nervous glances upwards at the sky in fear of a premature end to the truce… This is Gaza on a truce day. My shadow passes over the tarmac effortlessly, the merciless July sun burning my profile into it.

I arrive at Salim’s office to find Aed already waiting for me. Salim is one of Gaza’s most prominent living poets, as well as a close friend. Aed, on the other hand, works at the Ministry of Culture, having previously studied economics in Poland. The three of us walk to the Cairo-Amman Bank on Omar al-Mukhtar Street and, despite the seemingly endless queue, decide to wait as all of us need cash. After an hour and half, we finally find ourselves in front of the cashier. The young man behind the glass smiles as I greet him; he was a student of mine three years ago.

Afterwards, we walk to Fras souq, the city’s biggest market. Everything appears normal, if a little busy. Meat hangs in the butchers’ stalls, chicken cluck and flutter loudly in their cages, fruit is piled high. Then suddenly, everyone starts to check their watch. Before too long, it’ll be 3pm. We have to go. Aed gives us a lift and drives at speed. Our parting words as I step out of the car: ‘See you next truce.’

Sunday 3rd August

The Normality

It’s an endless game. Nothing but a game. Last night Israel announced the termination of its operations in Gaza. But tonight four people from one family have been killed and others injured while asleep in a house that they fled to in my father’s district. Death followed them from Beit Hanoun, where they had lived peacefully for so many years, and tracked them down in Jabalia4. Death wouldn’t let them go, knew where to look for them, followed their every footstep. The family had rented this house a few streets away. Last night death decided to put an end to that particular game of cat and mouse. The rocket struck the very centre of the house, bringing the whole block down with it. Concrete, shrapnel, bricks, great twists of iron, shards of glass – all collapsed into the same hole – announcing the end of this family.

The electricity comes on at about 1.30am. Everyone in the house jumps from their beds. This is now a regular custom. All the kids start charging their mobile phones. I plug in my laptop. My father-in-law checks the water supply. If it is low he has to turn the water pump on to fill the tank on the roof. Tonight is one of the few occasions when both the water supply and the electricity are working at the same time. My mother-in-law starts washing all the clothes. Everybody tries to make the best of the electricity before it goes off again. We know we have two hours at most. I’m still feeling ill; activity rushes backwards and forwards in front of me like a scene from a movie. I can barely stir from bed. I just want to sleep.

We have grown used to explosions sounding like they’re just next door; we no longer jump to the window to figure out who’s been hit and then head out into the street to help. Now so many such explosions can be heard. From one hour to the next, you simply wait in the darkness for the dawn to shine a light on the question of which building and which family has been destroyed.

Everything becomes normal. The barbarity of it, the terror, the danger. It all becomes positively ordinary. The only real worry you have, after so many weeks, is a nagging feeling that this war is never going to end. Inside this fact, hundreds of other facts reside. You might die. Your children might die. Your whole extended family might die. You might lose a limb, become disabled. Your house might be destroyed making you and your family homeless. You might lose your friends, your lover. You might be forced to leave your home and live in an UNRWA school or sleep on the street. Individually, however, these fears lose their power over you; they cannot control you. They have taken refuge in the wider, nagging doubt but, outside of that doubt, you become fearless. The sound of explosions becomes the most normal thing in the world; the blinding light given off just before a drone attack – normal. The constant hum of the drones – normal. The sound of an ambulance screeching round a corner or skidding to a halt– normal. The cries of mothers, the shouts of rescue workers– all perfectly normal. The Israeli army’s recorded message on your mobile saying that you stay where you are at your own risk – utterly normal. Waking up in the morning and finding out the house next door doesn’t exist anymore – entirely normal. Funerals processions passing in the street below almost every hour – thoroughly, implacably normal. Having electricity for one hour a day or not at all for five days straight– normal. Carrying water by hand up three flights of stairs to fill a small tank on the roof. Forgetting what day of the week it is, what date it is… all normal, verging on mundane.

We have to form new habits. As time passes, we realise that these are not fleeting exceptions or one-offs. They will be the routines and habits we must live by for a month, two months, six months. At the beginning of the war, in the first days of July, I thought this would only be for a few days more. After the first week passed, I told myself one more week, just one more. Two weeks in, I told my wife Hanna, ‘Don’t worry, just a few more days, that’s all.’ We keep shifting our guesses and, before we know it, we are talking months, and the war still looks young and lively. It’s not going anywhere. We might not have many days left but the war has got plenty of life still in it.

Despite the Israeli army’s declaration that the people of Beit Lahia and the Bedouin Village should return to their homes, most of them don’t return. It is hard for them to trust any such declaration. The organiser of the UNRWA school shelter across the road said, as he did the day before, that it is up to the people whether they to choose to return home. They can continue to stay in the schools. A few families decide to return. They prefer to be back home. My cousins were among the people who decided to return. Nowhere was safe for them, after five of them were injured when the UNRWA school was struck. My younger brother, Mohammad, who is pursuing his academic studies in history in Cairo, phoned to tell me that Sha’bban, one of our cousins, has arrived at the Palestine Hospital in Cairo. He visited him last night with some Palestinian friends.

Jabalia has become impossibly overcrowded since displaced people from the northern parts of the Strip arrived. When you walk in the street, you see people from everywhere in the north: from Beit Lahia, Beit Hanoun, the Bedouin Village, Ezbet Abed Rabbo and Etwam. The streets are full of these people. Most of them are staying in the schools. The lucky ones have relatives in Jabalia to stay with. Either way, every house in Jabalia is currently hosting three or four families. Thousands of people wander in the streets, their trauma palpable. Some have been blinded, some are having difficulty breathing, some look lost in a kind of trance, some tremble and shake with every step. All of them offer a picture of catastrophe.

Another funeral passes in the street below. The bodies of three victims are carried on stretchers. You can see from the outline of the flags stretched over them that these aren’t bodies, these are body parts – piles of meat gathered after an attack. Slogans are shouted angrily. Then the shouts are swallowed by silence and all you can feel is the pain left behind.

While playing in the living room, the kids have broken one of their grandmother’s plant pots. They were running after each other when one of them threw a pillow at the other and hit the pot. This is the worst thing that can happen from their grandmother’s point of view. The children fall silent as she moves sadly to fix her plant that’s been uprooted. I say, ‘It is very young. Not to worry. It’ll be OK.’ She does not reply. She is too busy with undoing the wrong.

Sharif, the pharmacist, has become the new family doctor. Hanna took Naeem to see him as he’s been running a temperature for a day now. Hospitals don’t respond to minor complaints at a time like this. It would be embarrassing to go there with a fever or a headache. People are dying every minute. Sharif is the only option. He guesses each illness and offers the appropriate medicine. The war has made everyone sick, it seems. I feel better today though. I’ve been taking three kinds of medicine. My throat hurts less and my chest is calmer. I barely cough at all this morning. My friend Mamoun – a former colleague from my days at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – tells me he has been coughing as well for the last four days. The gas that the Israeli army fired on his place in Khan Younis made everybody in the house cough. This could have a long-term effect. No one knows. When you are dodging missiles for your very life, you don’t pay attention to little details like a strange, persistent cough. I want to say, ‘This is serious; this gas could be threatening our lives as well.’ But Sharif ignores me. He asks if I have any cold water. I laugh. In this war, the aristocrat is not the person who owns the most amount of land or property; it’s the person who has a bottle of cold water. If you had such a bottle, the world would look at you with envy.

The hum of drones has returned; I can hear one hovering over our heads, choosing its next prey. It’s very hot. My daughter Jaffa is crying. My mother-in-law warns the kids not to touch her blessed plants. I write my weekly article for tomorrow’s edition of Al-Ayyam. The article starts with the words, ‘We are OK in Gaza’. But it’s a lie; we are never OK. Nonetheless, hope is what you have even at the worst of times. It is the only thing that can’t be stripped from you. The only part of you the drones or the F16s or the tanks or the warships can’t reach. So you hug it to yourself. You do not let it go. The moment you give it up you lose the most precious possession endowed by nature and humanity. Hope is your only weapon. It always works. It never betrays you. It never has before. And it will not this time. Hopefully.

Friday 8th August

A Nationalist Song

It’s 8am and the truce has just ended. I’ve barely slept. I’ve been listening to the news all night, waiting for any glimmer of hope that it might be extended. At 6.30am, I got out of bed and looked through the window. In an hour and a half, I thought, this peace will vanish. I went back to bed; everyone else was fast asleep. Even Jaffa, who’s normally the first to wake up, carries on sleeping. From time to time, I look at the clock hanging on the wall. Suddenly, a speeding car sounds its horn in the street outside. Then other cars do the same. Hanna stirs. ‘Maybe it’s another truce and they’re celebrating,’ she says. I know better; the beeping of the horns is a signal to everyone that the truce is ending. It’s heralding the return of war, warning everyone to be more careful. 8am, on the dot.

I lie there, waiting for the explosions. It remains quiet. Nothing near us, at least. This is good news. I try to go back to sleep. Jaffa is still deep in a dream and I tell myself I need to do the same. But the rest of Jabalia Camp wakes up as normal. People walk up and down the street beneath my window. A man across the street sits listening to a radio; the volume’s turned up so loud, we’re all listening to it with him.

The reporter talks about explosions in the Zeitoun quarter of Gaza City. An F16 has targeted several houses in the area.

I’m not really awake; my eyes are half closed, half open. The sound of the reporter’s voice ebbs and flows like the tide as I drift in and out of consciousness. Sometimes I have to struggle to listen, to pay attention. Other times I have to make an effort to ignore the noise and sleep. Like everything else around me this last month, I’m not sure which part is a dream, which part reality.

‘Israeli missiles have struck the Noor Mosque in Sheikh Radwan, Gaza City. Two teenage boys are reported injured. Heavy shelling is also reported near residential areas in Nuseirat Camp, as well as in Rafah and Beit Lahia. Attacks are being reported from air, land, and sea.’

After the bulletin, a nationalist song comes on and fills the street, and all the houses nearby, with its passion. I close my eyes. The rhetoric of the song and all its patriotic expressions echo in my head. I imagine everyone in the street marching in sync to it, their knees rising high off the ground and their feet slamming against the tarmac. Their arms move around in the air in time to the music, the rhythm of the song leading them on.

Hanna is on the phone to her cousin, Nisreen, who lives in Nuseirat. It’s her birthday today. It’s a long chat, as usual.

The Friday prayer is now being called. My father-in-law isn’t going to the mosque today. It will be one of the few Fridays he hasn’t attended prayers. For three days now, he’s been suffering from stomach cramps. He subscribes to a theory that it’s Israeli gas; that the Israel Defence Forces have been dropping white phosphorous during the night. Over the weeks, I’ve heard from scores of people suffering from either a stomach ache or a sore throat – like the one I had myself a week ago. My father-in-law tells me he had a sore throat as well and talked to his doctor about it. The doctor said it was possibly an infection but he couldn’t say why everyone was getting them at the same time. So my father-in-law will miss today’s prayers. He can’t walk to the mosque on his own. This will upset him, I know. The Friday sheikh is always very angry and promises the people that heaven will reward them and eternal life waits for them, but the people want to hear about this world, now; that a little more life awaits them here on earth, that they’ll survive.

Come the afternoon, more attacks are being reported all over the Strip. The realization that ‘war is here again’ catches us off guard. We’re aware that some stupid part of our brains still clings to wishful thinking about the truce, even now.

Suddenly there’s a huge explosion. Somewhere close. All of Jabalia seems to shake, from left to right. Everyone is afraid. We think it might be in one of the nearby buildings. I go to the window. Hanna goes to another one on the other side of the apartment, while the kids scatter between us, trying different windows to see if they can spot which house has been hit. My son Naeem shouts and points to smoke rising above a rooftop to the south. A thick plume of smoke seems to be spreading from it, across the whole camp. We close the window and stand back, watching, as it silently passes right by the window, heading down the street. Ambulance sirens fill the camp, just as the white smoke reaches the end of the street; the sound and the smoke competing with each other for air.

Later, we hear that it was the house of the Suliman family, near the Jabalia sports club, that the F16 chose to obliterate. Many have been injured.

Our lives are dictated by the rhythm of war and truce, war and truce; it’s like a dance, you have to follow it. War decides for us when we go to bed and when we get out of bed. It teaches us to be fully occupied with every detail of daily life. It makes electricity the most important thing in the world, then it forces you to forget there was ever any such thing as electricity. Your mood is bound by war and then, suddenly, it’s defined by truce. If there’s a ceasefire, you feel like you’re on cloud nine. You want to throw a party. Then you hear about the death of others. And you despair again. You remember that it only takes one more strike, one more break in the truce, one more rocket to drop through the sky, adjust its position, fire its boosters, and find you. You start to imagine your whole existence as a bit like a vacuum, something that contains nothing and then disappears the moment it can.

I see anxiety on all the kids’ faces. They don’t understand this rhythm of war and truce, war and truce. They can’t process the logic of it or understand the reasoning behind the decisions. They thought the war was over. How can something that’s over start again? How can everything turn 360 degrees in one hour?

‘Of course, we are not going to die!’ says Mostafa suddenly. I’m not sure if he’s asking me a question, or insisting on a fact that he’s completely sure of. Nobody understands. We just look at each other from time to time as the bombs drop, to ask an obvious question: ‘Did you hear that?’

It seems that the whole camp has decided to live with this war, to adapt to it, to carry on regardless of its brutality. When I finally leave the house tonight, at around 7pm, the streets are full of people. The shops are still open. Market traders are selling grapes and figs, displaying their wares on every corner of the souq. I wonder if there is some truce taking place that I’m not aware of. ‘Perhaps a new deal has been struck in Cairo in the last hour?’ I ask a stallholder. He interprets my question as a sign that I know something he doesn’t, and starts to smile and get excited. Before I get a chance to clarify what I meant, there’s a loud explosion to the east of the camp.

I smile and say, ‘What’s the difference?’

[1] At the junction of Omar Al-Mukhtar and Fehmi Bek streets, in Al-Saha (Al-Balad) area.

[2] The nine activists killed when Israeli soldiers boarded the lead ship in the Free Gaza Flotilla on 31 May 2010, whilst still in international waters. The flotilla was organised by the Free Gaza Movement and the Turkish Foundation for Human Rights, Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH), and was carrying humanitarian aid and construction materials, with the intention of breaking the Israeli blockade of the Strip.

[3] The phoenix is the symbol of Gaza City.

[4] The Wadhans family lost 12 members over the course of the war. Some were killed in their house in Beit Hanoun, some in Jabalia Camp.

*This story is taken from the book “The Drone Eats with Me” by Atef Abu Saif, Comma Press, 2015.