Heroes of Gaza III——–Lauren Booth’s Gaza Diaries

This is the last of the series of three articles chronicled by Lauren Booth during her recent visit to Gaza. Although this is probably the end of the chronicles, no matter who you are, where you are or what you are doing, I strongly urge you to keep the people of Gaza in your prayers. Every drop of human blood deserves better than what the world has been able to provide for the Palestinians. Try to think of yourself in the shoes of those people in Gaza who are suffering endlessly due to the absence of a permanent solution in the region. You could easily have been in their positions—-born in desolation and poverty in one of the UN refugee camps after having your patriarchal land overtaken just because you belonged to a different sect or religion. Thanks again to My Bit For Change for sharing Lauren Booth’s enlightening experiences in the Gaza strip.

For those of you who have yet to read the first two parts of Lauren Booth’s chronicles, here they are: Heroes of Gaza I & Heroes of Gaza II .

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Photo taken in Italy

Let’s resist for Gaza in order to save humanity!

Thanks to a Manchester Masjid’s fund raising in the UK, the children now have shoes footballs, table tennis kits, new tracksuits for the boys and the father. The girls have a new abaya each. The mothers are given tapestry and sewing materials to teach the girls the beloved Palestinian artistry of sewing. The family has a hot meal during our visit and is provided with wood for cooking in the coming weeks. Israel’s illegal witholding of essential supplies such as enough gas, oil and the components to maintain the utility works here means that Gaza is being pushed back to the time before electricity existed.When the power is cut, families must cook using gas from canisters. When the gas runs out – and right now, even the smallest gas ration means an eight to ten hour wait – families scavenge for twigs and light fires inside their apartments to try and cook what food they can afford to buy. It is becoming the norm for children to miss meals entirely. In this Beit Hanoun family, I ask the youngest boy of four, what his dream is, what he wants to be; “ I want to eat’ he says. “Somehow. Somehow.” This makes all the family laugh.

Next stop, Jaffa Street, Gaza city. The smart home of Mohammed Ajur, 25. He is a handsome young man with the sweet smile of faith (emaan) on his lips. He happily greets his friend who has brought me to meet him and myself and we are seated in the family salon. Mohammed was in his uncle’s home when a rocket hit during what Israel proudly calls operation Cast Lead. He woke up in hospital in Egypt having been in a coma for four days. His family were around him weeping.

What happened?’ he asked.

Habibi, you have lost both your legs’ he is told. His eyes shine with light and he smiles (smiles!) at the memory.

What did you say?’ I ask. Although by his contentment I already know the answer.

‘I said “Thanks be to God’ he replies.

I was so grateful to Allah for saving my eyes and my hands and giving me so many chances to continue my life in a good way. Many, many others in Gaza lost their sight and their hands from the attacks. Alhamdulillah, I have those. Alhamdulillah!’

Mohammed has since completed his university degree in sports education.

He laughs at this ‘yes I know sports education right! But I can do anything and I will succeed in this life, with God’s blessing, inshaAllah. My life is only beginning. I am now looking for a wife. There is so much I have to do now and I will!

He is the kind of man that makes you smile just being around him. On the middle of the table between us is a stunning urn, in copper glaze with rose workings and Arabic lettering across it. I admire it. ‘I made it’ he says shyly. He is also a talented artisan. ‘Do you like this jug?’ He asks me. I do. ‘Take it’ he says. I offer to pay but he refuses to sell it to me. It is a gift. Because I came to see him.

One final visit must be made this evening to a man whose livelihood mattered so much to my dear friend Vittorio Arrigoni; a fisherman. This father of six is in his late forties and hasn’t fished for two months. He explains that under the Oslo accord it was agreed that Gaza fisherman could sail up to 25miles from their coastline in order to fish. But Israel never honored this agreement. At first their naval forces forced the fisherman back to just six miles from the coast, then in recent years, to just three miles from the shore. There are no fish in this depth any longer due to over fishing and pollution. So, this fisherman took his boat, within his rights, to six miles and began to fish. The Israelis – as is a daily occurence for fishermen – attacked. At gunpoint he was told to strip naked and jump into the freezing February water where he was made to say for some time. Then still naked and humiliated he was handcuffed and taken to Ashdod for questioning. In the meantime the navy shot his boat so full of holes it is too damaged to repair. The livelihoods of four brothers and their thirty plus dependants – destroyed. Thanks to the same UK Masjid for donating the money to keep these families fed for the next month. After that, what will happen to them? Who knows?

As I type these words Israeli fighter jets are buzzing overhead jangling my nerves. They can be flying just for that effect or to launch yet another deadly attack on Gaza. It is 6am. The time when children are having breakfast and getting ready for school. Besides the night, this is the hour most favoured by Israel to inflict emotional terrorism on the population here. Driving through Gaza and seeing the queues of gas and petrol, I mentally titled my writing today as – Gaza’s suffering. But now the title has changed to ‘Gaza’s heroes’.

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Follow Lauren Booth on twitter. Here is a link to her blogs as well.

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Heroes of Gaza II —-Lauren Booth’s Gaza Diaries

This is the second part of Lauren Booth‘s chronicles in Gaza. For the uninitiated, the first part has been published already. Again, thanks a lot to My Bit for Change for sharing this. The last part of the series of three will be published the next day.

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I, a stranger here in Beit Hanoun, walk down this road at dusk. Every window with a face in offers me ‘Salam.’ The doorway of the sole shop has a family sitting in it, I wave.

Assalamu Alaykum’, they shout at me – cheerily. Yes cheerily, I feel the lump in my throat that I carry inside forming again. “Peace’ they offer to the stranger in their midst, as they bathe me in smiles of instant friendship. On the corner two young guys come over and greet me as if I am a long lost cousin. There welcome is so warm that I wonder for a moment if we have met on a previous visit to Gaza.

“Okay’ says the tallest brother, after introducing himself.
‘Nice to meet you now you come to our home to spend the evening, First tea, then you stay with us. Yalla come!’..

I laugh..

‘Why you laugh?’ asks the other boy in his late teens or early twenties.

‘We don’t joking – you come for tea now, really, Fadal.’

These boys are brimming with life. Their eyes have energy and hope in them that is utterly at odds with the grim landscape they live in. They are heroes of Gaza, the next generation of hope, the ones who will not be broken.

We can’t take tea with them and are eventually allowed to leave only with sincere promises to return to their home as soon as possible.

We have come to visit, amongst this needy populace, a family in dire need.

Through a broken wooden gate, behind a crumbling stone wall, my friend Yassir, silent and grim faced, points me into a cement building that has no right to be standing. It was once a PLO prison. Now it is ‘home’ to a family of one father, his two wives and their seventeen children. Before the second intifada the father used to work in Israel and he had enough money for his growing family. After the blockade, it stopped. So he worked as taxi driver. And that income was just enough to get by on for his growing family. Then the siege came. Food prices have shot up to parity with those in European nations whilst incomes here are Third World low. His car began to have small problems which he couldn’t afford to repair, which led to worse ones which killed it. I pass its rotting carcass and enter a large unplastered room with a cement floor. There is no furniture, no pictures, no adornments of any kind. Besides, two plastic chairs, the freezing space is utterly empty except for a small TV, on a crate in one corner. Children with hollow eyes, mill about, expressionless, wide eyed at the surprise visit of so many unknown faces. They look (and are) shell shocked.

One of the wives makes an attempt to smile. The husband in his shame at the poverty of his family mutters ‘salam’ and looks at the ground. Their sixteen year old son has a limp, I ask what the matter is, ‘has he hurt himself playing?’.

His trouser leg is pulled up and a large plaster ripped off revealing a fresh ten inch wound with stitches. His ankle is also bandaged. Two years earlier the boy (then 14) had been collecting rubble in the wasteland, once orchards that Israel has now stolen as its ‘buffer zone.’ His job was to sell the rock for whatever he could, to scavenge then, in the hope of some money for the hungry family. An Israeli sniper at a long distant shot him in his leg, shattering the bone. He has finally after years had the pins put in his shin. It is likely he will limp for the rest of his life.

A smaller boy of around ten is brought over. His dirty tracksuit bottoms are pulled above the knee to reveal strange white patches. White phosphorous, the napalm of the 21st century was blown across this area when Israel rained it, by the ton, onto one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

Another son of around seven, shoeless and silent clings to his father’s legs.
This boy’ he tells me, ‘has developed mental problems since the attack in 2009. The soldiers came many times into our home and wake the children up, shouting. Now he doesn’t talk and doesn’t act normally. Doctors can’t help him.

Cooking is being done in the kitchen i.e. an empty cement space with a fridge that is empty except for four cauliflowers of questionable age. Due to the ‘cuts’ – twelve hour electricity blackouts – no family can chill or freeze food anymore. Fridges are just storage cupboards in Gaza. There is nothing else in the room except on the dirty floor, a single, ancient electric ring on which, now, a pan of chips is cooking. Chips that are enough for perhaps three children in the UK would here feed a family of 20.

It is Salah (prayer) time. The smaller of the wives takes me to another empty room. This one is called a bedroom because it has blankets in it. She lays out a prayer mat for me.

As I pray, I can see my own home, my own happy, educated, well fed, daughters. All the luxuries of London flood my sight and tears come. Besides me the mother makes her prayer. Behind me one of her daughters hold a torch on me as the room has no lights and no electricity anyway. It’s not the poverty that gets me it’s the evil of humanity that pours agony on almost two million Gazans, year in year out for 63 years. It is so much worse here than when I came four years ago, that words can barely describe the new cruelties Israel has designed to torture the people in this vast concentration camp.

Habeebiti’ says the mother beside me. ‘Please don’t cry.’

Her concern for me makes me sob even more. I can’t speak with the weight of my grief. ‘Oh God’, I think to myself. ‘Don’t let her be kind to me, please, I can’t take it’.

But she is. Of course she is. She is Palestinian.

‘My dear, why do you cry? Are you alright?

I…I..hate this for you...’ is all I manage to utter.

She looks into my eyes. Mother to mother.

What? Don’t cry for us, it’s okay, you can stop now, shhh’.

Then, she says the words that almost break me, words that make me feel so humble. I fear, I may never stop crying. Tears that begin as frustration and sadness -become tears of love and respect.

We are so happy. We are Muslims, we know this is our test and we must be patient. We are happy, really sister, we are. Allah will reward us if we can just be patient’.

These are the exact words I have heard in EVERY home I have entered in Gaza at this terrible time.

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Follow Lauren Booth on twitter. Here is a link to her blogs as well.

Heroes of Gaza I—-Lauren Booth’s Gaza Diaries

Lauren Booth is a British broadcaster and journalist currently working for Iran’s 24 hour English news channel Press TV. A few months back she visited Gaza and chronicled the effects of Israel’s hegemonic policies on the people of Gaza. After reading it, I realized that it will be a sin on my part not to share with the world a message so important and powerful—–that elsewhere in the world people are constantly fighting hurdles and fighting for hope amidst all troubles. Here is the first of a series of three chronicles she has written about the visit. Thanks a lot to My Bit For Change for sharing this.

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I write this from a freezing, dark hostel room in the centre of Gaza. This area is now in a twelve hour blackout, so there will be no hot water to shower with this morning and no internet. After three days here, I feel, dirty, tired and emotionally wrung out. Yet, I know that in 48 hours, when the time comes to leave, I will not want to go. For Gaza’s incredible people have again overwhelmed a visitor with their warmth, their ability to offer friendship on a first meeting and their absolute resilience and faith in a Divine plan.

Yesterday, driving around was a stark reminder of just how serious the fuel shortage is here. At regular intervals the roadside becomes jammed with many hundreds of battered, near death, vehicles, stalled. Men sit at the wheels or smoke leaning against them, faces grim. They are locked into an 8 hour wait for just 100 shekels of fuel. Not enough for a quarter of a tank in the larger cars. When the fuel at the pumps becomes perilously low, each driver may buy just 50 shekels. As a result, cars are becoming if not quite a rarity, then certainly for a city with a population the size of Gaza – a luxury. Roads that were once jammed with the honking life typical of all major Middle Eastern cities are silent. The silence is not a blessing either; don’t think that for a moment! I remember when Diana died and cars were banned from the city centre for her funeral, what a beautiful day that was. Citizens could reclaim the streets and remember what it was to stroll in peaceful, bliss.

This is different. This silence is morbid and desperate. For alongside the near empty roads, are shops boarded up. And the pavements which you’d think would be jammed with people are empty too. There is simply no way to get to work – if you have it. Many shops simply close down due to the blackouts. This silence is the quiet of despair.

My bodyguard Mr Falafel (his nickname) and my friend Yassir, drive me to Beit Hanoun to visit a family living on the edge of one of Israel’s infamous and ever expanding buffer zones. On our way out of the main city, Yassir shouts,

Stop, Lauren let us get out and see this.’

It’s not clear what he wants me to see, As I get out there are men and boys milling everywhere, hundreds. There is shouting. Then I see them. A yellow, mountainscape of plastic containers piled four high in some places and stretching from one end of the road to the other. We follow the line of boys and are shocked to see the queue is the same length around the corner.

What is your name!?” shout boys of all ages. ‘How are you today?’
Where you come from?’

The foreign lady in the hijab provides a welcome distraction from their miserable duty and Yassir and I are quickly embroiled in a human maelstrom of faces and laughter. We squeeze away from the youngsters towards a father in his fifties who is near the front of the queue. I ask him what he needs.

Fuel for the generator. We have no light. No electricity. We can’t eat. The children are cold.

He has six children. That is a small family here. Looking at the thousands of containers waiting to be filled, each powering a generator that has become the only (ir) regular source of power for Gaza homes, I realise that each one represents a family of ten or more.

In a week, they say, even the fuel at these stations will run out. Then what?…

It is dusk, Maghrib prayer time, as we reach Beit Hanoun. An area that was, not too long ago, a place of farming. Of vast orchards stretching as far as the eye could see, where adults worked and children sheltered from the heat of the sun, playing the games that only children understand.

This evening the sun sets over what’s left; a sealed off scrubland of weeds and thorns.

We get out of the car. “Israel sent bulldozers and destroyed everything, all the trees; old trees, old orchards.’ I learnt.

Such is the sight to my right. To my left across the pot holed ‘road’ is Gaza’s frontline with Israel. The enemy that it fears so much are families in roughshod apartment blocks. No frills here. No trips to Ikea for little home touches. Here ‘home’ is a cement block low rise, half finished, slum. There are so many children here it’s hard to fathom for the first time visitor. Large families are the norm in Palestine and in Gaza, a pride. Each window of the hundreds I pass can represent easily five children within. Beside each and every window are dozens of Israeli bullet holes or the larger impact damage from shells of all variety. Hard to imagine the international reaction if a family suburb in Tel Aviv were attacked like Beit Hanoun is attacked by the IOF, over not just days, not even months – but years.

I remember once asking a very poor mother in Gaza why she had so many children.

We need atleast seven children to each family here’, she said

Why? Because atleast two will be killed by Israel. Two more, Israeli will take to prison for a long time or cripple with rockets. Two may (may) have a chance to get educated and they will leave Palestine and never return, which leaves just one child to look after us in our old age...

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Follow Lauren Booth on twitter. Here is a link to her blogs as well. The last two parts of her chronicles will also be published here on this blog.

The Jeddah Jazz

As the countless Japanese cars snaked through the many flyovers of Jeddah, my Bangladeshi driver cum guide drove his new Sonata with an ease I had never before seen present in any of his counterparts back in Dhaka.

It is around 11 o’clock in the morning. But since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sleeps by the day and works at night in order to adapt to the high temperatures throughout the day, the offices and shops were mostly closed.

“There are so many cars here. But the traffic is always on the move. Unlike in Dhaka, where the traffic is mostly gridlocked into a standstill.” I mused more to myself rather than saying anything to him. But immediately, I was forced to regret.

“Huh, Dhaka. What a horrible city filled with the worst of humankind in this world,” came his embittered, callous response. “I would rather drive here in the 44 degrees Celsius desert than go back to that hell-hole of a place.”

With my pride of being me disheveled by one of my very own countrymen, I stopped pondering out loud and looked out through my closed windows to grasp in the concreteness of Jeddah.

But for my driver, silence happened to be one of the lowest issues in his agenda. As he drove past the countless air-conditioned cars and transited from the desert to the roads beside the beach bordering the Red Sea, he pointed to me Egypt.

“There’s Cairo, the land of the pharaohs. Only a few hours from Jeddah by the sea, but possessing none of the wealth and glitter of the city. Full of beggars and pricks, I tell you. And mini-skirted females as well.”

I chuckle and coerce myself against roaring into laughter. I had yet to see a Jeddah female without a veil, and the contrasting sight of Cairo only a few hours away but possessing mini-skirted females made me giggle.

“What happens on the roads at night? I mean if people here sleep during the day to work at night, but still the avenues and flyovers somehow manage to be flooded with luxury cars even at this hour it must be quite gridlocked in the dark.” I enquired after him, trying to make him see that Dhaka wasn’t as bad as he felt.

“At night all those jewelers’ markets open up,” he tells me pointing to the monstrous elegant shopping malls located inside the buzz of Jeddah, “and makes life harder for us drivers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter. The traffic jams are always under the control of the police and you never have all those filthy public buses and rickshaws and CNGs loitering around.” Clearly, he had anticipated my lucid trials to uphold Dhaka in his eyes. “Oh and look at that”—- he cuts in all of a sudden.

I grasped in the direction to which he was pointing. And what I beheld made me feel like the smallest being of existence present in this universe.

“Behold: the KingdomTower under construction. The first 1 km long tower in the world. Built by Prince Waleed’s Kingdom Holdings and the Saudi Binladen Group, it will surpass Dubai’s mediocre Burj-al-Khalifa.”

Truly representing the oil wealth of this indolently luxurious Middle-Eastern city, the majestic skyscraper rose up into the sky symbolizing power and riches, and obstructing the views of the horizone. Any outsider who has never paid a visit to Jeddah is bound to think that the city is still sitting in the Middle-Ages. Thanks to all those stereotypes by the Western media. But nothing could be further from the truth. And the gigantic Apple adverts substantiated my aforementioned claim. Although it is true that Jeddah is a remnant of an Arab civilization that has been extant since the 600 AD, the grossly metropolitan city is a violent concoction of Western modernity and Eastern identity.

In a way, it can be justified by the fact that Jeddah sits in between the East and the West.

But then again, I had yet to find all those traditional Middle-Eastern bazaars here that I had seen in ‘World Café Middle-East’ on TLC where they regularly showed Syria, Turkey, Palestine and many other states in this region. Here the bazaars have all been replaced by vast chain super-stores like Bin Dawoud (which of course is the Saudi Binladen Group’s version of Walmart) selling every brand of European chocolates and designer dresses and outfits for both males and females.

As I reached my destination, my driver dropped me off. In the ancient civilizations and the tales from the Arabian Nights I am sure anyone would have referred to Jeddah as an oasis because of the huge amount of life it can support. But due to the heat and the invention of air-conditioners which is ubiquitous everywhere in oil-rich Middle-East, what my eyes were affronted to was definitely not life.

It was buildings and cars everywhere. No sign of life. All locked up in their air-conditioned homes, offices and cars.

But as I strode off, I felt secured to find a middle-aged man sweeping off the grounds in front of an office with his broom.

I chuckled again as I noticed his brown skin.

A Bangladeshi again! I told myself, jubilant. My driver had previously told me that even if you are lost inside one of the worst desert-regions in Saudi Arabia you will surely find a Bangladeshi nearby. Three million expatriate Bangladeshis are living here and toiling under the glaring sun in broad daylight and struggling amidst desert-storms at night, while the Arabs slept soundly inside their air-conditioned rooms during the day and went to the posh shopping malls at night; with their Arab kids being taken care of by the Indonesian servants employed by these families. And in case you didn’t know, most of their expenses are paid by the government as well.

I inquired the Bangladeshi man for my address in Bengali. He smiled and gave me back the directions and then returned piously to his sweeping. I wondered for how long he will have to do that with the afternoon heat switched on with its full blow.

After my chore is done, as I come out of my destination I was greeted by a gust of extremely hot desert wind. My loose trousers and cotton T-shirt gave in to the dust-breeze and fluttered back and forth.

For the first time that day, I saw a Jeddah woman around two yards ahead of me; trying to get into the front-passenger seat of her car before the wind assaulted her.

Never before having seen women here dressing up without the burkha, I was quite taken aback on this particular occasion as the damsel in distress was fighting hard to prevent her veil from being flown off, because I noticed that she is dressed up like any normal European or American women with skin-hugging, above-the-waist T-shirt and jeans beneath her veil.

I chuckled once again. I had no idea what the woman was thinking of me as I had not lowered my gaze—-a custom followed by everyone in this extremely religious part of the world—-but under her niqab I thought I could discern a contempt for me.

By then the horizon had already been darkened by the shroud of darkness, and as the malls and offices began to open up, the streets began to be filed with men and women and cars—–a lot of cars. I noticed more women coming out on the streets dressed in European low-cuts and all forms of Western outfits, some of them having iPod earphones plugged into their ears. A large portion even without the niqab. I noticed men donning the traditional long Middle-Eastern shirt and the turban.

Conflicted with the fact that the Saudis had only recently allowed their women to work outside their homes in gender-segregated offices; the notion that women here aren’t allowed to drive legally; and weird laws that permitted an 80 year old man to marry a 12 year old girl, I got into my car and enquired my verbose driver about the traditional Jeddah culture.

“Jeddah is the Kingdom’s most liberal and modernized city. The Saudi families have big homes equipped with swimming pools, segregated discos and bars—-“

“Bars?” I cut in disbelievingly, knowing that alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.

“Alcohol-free bars obviously. The population here is extremely Westernized. Half the women here on the streets wear low-cut European dresses and mini-skirts under their veil.”

With that he pushed on the ignition and drove off into the city of lights. By then, night had settled in and Jeddah was fully illuminated.

“If you feel hungry, there’s Al-Baik nearby. I will stop and you can have something inside your stomach.” My driver had somehow understood that I was feeling starved and dehydrated.

“Al-Baik? Is it good?” I asked ostentatiously, knowing about the quality of Al-Baik back in Dhaka.

“It’s the best in the country,” he returned confidently, “much better than KFC.”

So as he led me into a one-storied posh shopping center, I cashed out some money from the ATM booth nearby using my father’s international debit card and strode off into Al-Baik.

Standing in a queue, and worrying over how I will be able to converse in Arabic, I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that even the salesmen here are all Bangladeshis; thus sparing me the trouble of a language barrier.

I sat alone at a nearby table and picked at the delicious-looking chicken drumsticks. My driver was right. Al-Baik produces the best chicken here and their produce is also much better than the sprawling chicken stores back in Dhaka.

I was reminded of a few online articles about how Saudi Arabia is still stuck in the Middle-Ages like Morocco, while its regional enemies sitting in Tehran & Tel-Aviv are enjoying rapid boons and developments in terms of military, science, art and economics.

“What a farce!” I muttered out so loud that the people sitting around began to stare at me disapprovingly.