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Days in Gaza

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Fog at 6:30 one morning, the beginning of a hot day.

At around 5 a.m., long after the Azzan (call to prayer) has sounded from various surrounding mosques for the early morning prayer, but still before sunrise, my brother-in-law's family in the apartment below turn on Quranic recitations -- technically not considered music but soothingly melodic nonetheless -- as they get their kids ready for school, which they go to in two shifts, starting very early, because all of Gaza's schools are massively over-crowded.

In the random times when I get up during these quiet hours, I revel in the sounds almost devoid of human noise… no honking taxis, children playing soccer in the streets, street sellers circulating goods… (there's about a 2-hour window of reverie before these all begin anew).

On many days, I hear the sea's waves a few hundred metres away rebound off our walls, doves cooing, small birds flitting, roosters, a nearby horse, palm leaves in the wind. It is a tranquility you don't get after Gaza wakes up, and must wait for till the late hours, after whatever wedding party has stopped blasting celebratory music and stray cats have stopped their mating screams.

This winter was apparently the coldest here for some time. Though it doesn't get to snow temperatures, the lack of insulation and heating in homes leaves you constantly chilled… and makes it harder for me to leave my simple mattress on the floor and heap of blankets for that time of morning serenity.

But slowly it is getting warmer. An almond tree in the neighbourhood was already blooming a week ago.

The taxis start honking just before 7 a.m. as they circle for fares, catching students going to local schools, people commuting to Gaza for work and university, and usually later others like me. Around the same time, a variety of men on improvised tutktuks (the Gaza version motorcycle with a home-welded trailer) or by donkey and cart, circulate selling or collecting, making a pittance in the end but trying nonetheless to survive in a siege and occupation-shattered economy.

"Srrayda, srrayda, srrayda…" A youth selling the tiny fish people in Gaza love, though now much of it comes from Egypt instead of Palestinian waters, because of the heavy Zionist navy presence and their attacks on Palestinian fishers.

Aloomineeum, nkhass kharban al biya. "Your broken metals, copper, I'll buy it," blares one man's bullhorn, strapped onto the homemade tuktuk.

Others collect broken appliances and recyclables to break down and sell materials individually (particularly since most metals and construction materials are banned by the Zionist regime from entering Gaza.

Selling cleaning fluid, a must in homes which are swept and mopped clean daily.

Selling cooking gas canisters; during gas crises (frequent, as the Zionists often don’t allow enough through the sole imports crossing), canisters are hard to come by, expensive, and usually filled only about halfway so that more people can get gas, even if half rations.

Home-made yogurt and fresh milk, sold in whatever sized container you supply.

Rare patch of green amidst the grey; one family’s fortune–land on which to grow fruit, palm and olive trees, herbs, vegetables…

Morning routine: check to see if power is on; make coffee; check news if there's power. Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish wrote an ode to the nuances of qahua, and while I don't know these nuances, I do love the cardamom, and so throw a few extra pods into the pot before adding the coffee-cardamom grinds. It's a thicker grind than filtered coffee, so you have to let it boil up, let the foam do its foaming and settle back down.

1 shekel (about 25 cents) a pack biscuits, to line the stomach before the mandatory morning coffee. Only recently I noticed that these cracker-cookies were made in Deir al Balah, where we live in Gaza. Once upon a not so long ago, Gaza's factories produced all sorts of goods, from biscuits to ice cream to yogurt to clothing, exported to the rest of occupied Palestine and even beyond. For the past at least 6 years, the Zionist occupation has allowed virtually no exports to leave Gaza, shattering the economy and one of the many reasons that 80 per cent of the 1.7 million Palestinians living in the Strip are dependent on food aid, cannot even afford to buy biscuits like these. In July 2011, I wrote about the ban on exports:

Over 700 private businesses were destroyed or damaged in Israel's 2008-2009 war on Gaza, among them 325 factories and workshops, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR). Even before the 23-day Israeli attacks, 97 per cent of Gaza's industry had shut down for want of raw materials and replacement machine parts banned under the Israeli-siege imposed in 2006 shortly after Hamas was elected.

The World Bank notes that factories in Gaza import 95 percent of their raw materials, rendering them heavily dependent on the border crossings. All but the Rafah crossing, under Egyptian control, are controlled by Israel. Kerem Abu Salem, the crossing sporadically open to imports and almost never to exports, is less functional and more congested than the former Karni crossing.

Despite Israel's declared "easing" in June 2010 of the total siege on Gaza, in June 2011 the World Food Programme (WFP) reported that "only 5 percent of the pre-blockade export volume was reached from November 2010 to April 2011."

From our 4th floor apartment -- half of the roof on the family home -- down past my in-laws who inevitably are concerned whether or not we've eaten (and if we have, well eat again anyway… this is the generosity and concern prevalent here, even from some of the poorest families who can scarcely afford one solid meal a day), and through the grey concrete neighbourhood we live in to more grey concrete (it is a rarity to see other than bare-bones grey homes), it's about a 7-minute walk to the taxi stop, a crossroads where Deir's principal street and Shara el Nakhal (Date Palms street) intersect.

On Fridays, this intersection disappears under mounds of vegetables, fruits and daily needs piled onto makeshift tables, donkey carts, and flatbed pickups where there's space for them. Most families wait till the Friday markets all over the Strip to do their weekly shopping: the cheaper vegetables, fruits, meats and fish are in these markets, as well as cheap, sugary and greasy treats that are staples from childhood. I rarely go to the market without bringing back $1 worth of awwama, which most in the house like. Donut-hole-sized bits of fried dough, the balls are soaked in a sugary syrup, sweet and oily and cheap. I prefer the simsimiya, sesame seed bars.

But awwama, namoura (a dense and sugary semolina cake, sometimes with almonds), and even the produce and meats are luxuries beyond the reach of about 80 per cent of Palestinians in Gaza.

Near the taxi intersection, Deir al Balah. Inadequate drainage and heavy rain in January meant the streets flooded with market sludge and water.

From the taxi intersection I'm usually heading for Gaza City, in which case I stand at the northeast side and wait for shared taxis coming from "downtown" Deir and heading north. Stand by the garbage dumps on the south side and taxis will take me east into town or beyond. If going east, I usually walk a few hundred metres beyond the bins and catch taxis in flight; the bins are always overflowing, inundated with the stench of too-little-collected mounds of trash. Gaza's landfill sites are in their own years-coming crisis.

Often, I see men pushing carts smaller than most North American grocery carts (and far less sturdy) piled with rubbish collected from the streets of Deir's neighbourhoods and camps. I'm told that this inadequate collection system is also the UNRWA's system. The men, pushing their unstable, overflowing carts on broken streets, repeatedly stop to pick up bundles and pieces of fallen trash, doing so with remarkable dignity nonetheless. But it seems there could be a better push-vehicle for their work, to at least save them doing their work twice as they go.

Before 9 a.m. in Deir, most shops in our neighbourhood aren't open. In Gaza City and in Deir's "downtown" (a few more shops makes it a hub) area, some of the food shops are open -- selling falafels and foul (mashed beans, garlic, hot pepper, olive oil…) -- as are the roadside coffee and tea stands -- cup of coffee or tea for the equivalent of 25 cents.

One day, as I pass the UN food aid depot, a woman ahead of me walks with a plastic bag of white, nutrition-devoid bread balanced comfortably on her head. Yes, Gaza gets food aid (as much as people here just want to work, earn a living, be self-sufficient, farm their land and grow the grains they used to…), but what is the value of the starchy white flour doled out to make flatbread? Good for scooping up nutrition-dense olive oil and soups, but it itself is worthless and high in sugar.

Rampant malnutrition, stunting, anaemia among children and many women, a result of the vast deficiency in vitamins and minerals and proteins in most diets here -- too damn expensive for that majority of people rendered-impoverished by the Israeli-imposed siege and years of border closures beforehand and the bombing of businesses… factories…  homes, not to omit the attacking of fishers and farmers (who traditionally provided a variety of nutrient-rich food sources).

My Palestinian family -- expelled from their fertile farmland in Sawafir, 1948 Palestinian land -- is lucky to just be poor, not impoverished. They can afford to buy chicken once a week, or fish (I can't remember when they've had any other sort of meat…), and the staples vegetables: tomatoes, onions, cucumbers, potatoes, garlic (though essential to most dishes here, they must use it sparingly -- it's pricey here), as well as seasonal ones: molokkhiya (a weedy green that makes a marvelous, viscous soup), spinach, khoubeyza (I don't know the equivalent: a delicate, wild green that makes a soup somewhat similar to spinach), cauliflower…

They also buy when they can apples, clementines, bananas…

It doesn't get much more extravagant than that. Luckily, toasted pumpkin and sunflower seeds are sold in small packs at most shops for the equivalent of 25-50 cents, which makes for cheap snacking, and entertainment.

Small pleasures here. In a way, for someone like myself who has lived here only the last few years of my life and is well used to all of the luxuries afforded most of the 'developed' nations, my life in Gaza is also about re-acquainting with simple pleasures (and forgetting those luxuries). Like that morning tranquility, or a good cup of coffee, or a fire a night and better yet some eggplants to throw on the fire for mashing.

For the vast majority here, from what I've seen time and again, even those who are struggling the greatest to survive find those moments of small pleasures, though in their forced poverty, the pleasures are far simpler, based more on social interactions than material goods. And somehow a dry but ready sense of humour and willingness to laugh and celebrate abounds, in spite of all the incredible odds against people here.

Approaching the newly repaired coastal road bridge, which opened exactly 3 months after the Zionists bombed it, along with much of Gaza's infrastructure. For three months, Palestinians travelling from central Gaza to the big city had to endure a minimum 15 minute detour, longer on rainy days when the rutted road became rutted and muddy.

One of the usual stops, a taxi intersection outside of al-Azhar University and not far from the Islamic University.

Returning to Deir al Balah, it's the same shared-taxi routine though the drivers leaving from near Shifa hospital, Gaza's main hospital, don't trawl for fares as the morning drivers do, since Shifa is a central area and there is a steady stream of people returning to their homes.

If there is a wait, it's usually no more than 10 minutes, time enough for another cup of coffee if it's been a long day.

Children are usually returning from the second shift of school around the same time I'm coming home.

And the power is usually out.

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