Excerpts from my journal during a 6 week journey to Gaza.
Unless the whole aim of Zionism is changed, there will never be peace….Palestine does not belong to the Jews and it does not belong to the Arabs, nor to Judaism or Christianity or Islam. It belongs to all of them together; it is the Holy Land…. We must once and for all give up the idea of a ‘Jewish Palestine’ in the sense that a Jewish Palestine is to exclude and do away with an Arab Palestine….Moslems, Christians, and Jews have each as much right there, no more and no less, than the other: equal rights and equal privileges and equal duties. . . .Judaism did not begin with Zionism, and if Zionism is ethically not in accord with Judaism, so much the worse for Zionism.
(Written in 1929 by Judah Magnes in a letter to Felix Warburg. Magnes was an American Reform rabbi and leader within the American Jewish community. He moved to Palestine in 1922, where he became the first president of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, serving from 1925-1948. Warburg was a successful banker and philanthropist, who was instrumental in the founding of the Jewish Agency, initially a joint venture between Zionists and non-Zionists. Taken from Wrestling with Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, edited by Tony Kushner and Alisa Solomon.)
(Thanks to Dorinda Moreno)
At the Orient House restaurant along the Mediterranean Sea coast, Noor, Ahmed (as I’ve renamed them both to maintain their privacy) and I had our long evening together, me sitting next to Noor so we could converse. We’d intended to dine at the seaside Crazy Waters Park but it was jammed with people celebrating the end of the Muslim holiday Eid Al Adha. The park had recently reopened after being attacked by extremist elements and Noor and Ahmed wished to support it. Here’s what I learned about some marriage customs in Gaza—and about Noor and Ahmed.
They are engaged. They signed a contract with lawyer participation. It states that Ahmed gave something of value to Noor’s family, the so-called bride price. Which in fact didn’t happen, Noor explained, because we don’t believe in it.
Furthermore we are now legally married. So now Ahmed can view my hair.
To signify their relationship they each wear rings—on their right hand ring fingers. They’ll shift the rings, beautiful thick bands, to their left hand after they’ve married. Contrasting with Christian tradition, the marriage ceremony itself is secular, more a festival than a ritual or sacred event.
The contract includes clauses about rights of separation. If Ahmed were to leave Noor—which he can do without her permission—and she withholds permission, he must pay a penalty of some astronomical size, stated in dinars (Jordanian currency for some reason, rather than shekels, Palestinian). If she gives permission, there is no penalty. Noor does not have the right to leave Ahmed without his permission. Divorce is rare in this society. At the Palestinian entry point, meeting with the official, when he asked me if I was married, and I said divorced, he looked crestfallen, said, I’m so sorry. Yeah, well…
In Gaza many engagements lead quickly to marriage. In their case, Noor explained, they wanted to assure that they’d have enough money to live together. Prolonging the engagements period they’ve set the date for February and invited me to attend, since I had a small role in them finding each other.
The father of the prospective bride must give permission for marriage. Noor’s father demurred until he knew Ahmed well enough. I assume this was before the engagement. Noor’s father, perhaps the entire family, is of the liberated ilk. Father would never force his daughter to marry someone.
Noor worked as a photographer after completing a photographic workshop. She photographed respiratory victims, mostly children, often in their homes. She’s shown me her photos, very well seen and made (as my mentor Minor White would say). I plan to invite her to present her work at the photo workshop I’m now leading. She is a model of what might happen if one pursues her bliss. However, now she works in administration at a medical center. She doesn’t like the job.
Some of Noor’s photos from a photo workshop I taught
Noor lived many years with her family outside Gaza in Arabic and western countries. She was born in Kuwait after her family moved there from Gaza about 20 years ago for work. The first United States-Iraq war precipitated their move in 1993 to Canada. After one year they moved to Jordan. She told me that her parents wished the children to be raised in an Arabic country. The family moved back to Gaza in 2000 where they’ve lived since then. Her father reopened his insurance business.
My account of marriage in Gaza is probably in part motivated by my own experience with marriage and near marriage, 25 years with P and 20 with Y, and also projections into my own future. What I might wish for, wish to avoid. Marriage for me? Doubtful. I’m against the institution as constituted in the west. Love for me, deep love? Maybe yes, maybe no.
MONA EL FARRA
Recently I visited Mona (she allowed me to use her real name), one of Gaza’s heroes, for much of the afternoon. We met near her office and walked to her home about 2 km further. She felt her office would be too chaotic. We passed a crumpled building. I asked to make photos. She OKed it. A security official tried to stop me. Mona intervened, told me later, that he had told her your friend will have to get a permit from the Hamas government. She said that’s absurd, he’s going to show the world what the Israelis did to us. He then allowed me to photograph and walked off. The building had been the Ministry of the Interior, connected with Hamas, therefore part of the enemy entity, as defined by Israel, and thus worthy of destruction.
In conversation later with Dr. Mona, as she’s lovingly called by many, a medical doctor trained in dermatology, and her friend Alexia, the first female pharmacist in Gaza, we decided several factors had manifested when the security official tried to block me from photographing the building, besides the apparent ignorance of many Palestinians generally regarding public relations: his wish to exert authority and his wish to cover his ass, not be reprimanded later by even higher authority figures. Mona is good at contravening such misuse of authority. I joked that she should accompany me on more of my photo walks. Needless to say, she is very critical of Hamas. As are many, I’m picking up, which is no surprise.
Generally—and these are not necessarily all shared by Mona—reasons range from the belief that Hamas precipitated the bombardment of 2008-2009, known as Operation Cast Lead; its restrictions on social life, like forbidding relations between unmarried men and women in public; demanding women wear the hijab or head covering; dismissing and sometimes attacking anything Western, such as the UN’s Summer Games programs for children and the water park known as Crazy Waters which was nearly burnt to the ground; its rigid and often violent positions against its main political rival Fatah; and its wish as expressed in its covenant to destroy Israel. Furthermore, people are critical of creeping corruption and inefficiency in Hamas. Yet many are proud that it stood up to Israel during the assault and continuing invasions, and compared with Fatah is more effective and trustable.
Mona (right) with a friend (not Alexia)
She’s proven very helpful to me and my photo project already. She lined up photographing some of the projects of MECA, Middle East Children’s Alliance, where she is the Gaza project director, introducing me to one of the participants over the phone. MECA provides water purification units for schools. She might help me photograph people who are still suffering physically and medically from Operation Cast Lead. This thru a man she raves about who works with an international human rights organization. Too bad she’ll be out of Gaza for 15 days in Arabic countries, thru the southern border crossing of Rafah, flying out thru Cairo, to return with some of her children for the winter holidays.
Mona is truly an exceptional being. Gracious, kind, generous, she offered to wash the dishes with her cleaning lady (who refused). She served Alexia a meal (beef and potatoes, with frozen mixed veggies) after she’d served me one (fish and salad, with pita). She informed me about 2 international women who had recently resided with her for 2 months. Living alone and divorced, a medical doctor, she is a person of service, a very compassionate soul. Additionally she makes very good salad. Here’s the recipe: cut up tomatoes, cucumbers, what have you. Make a sauce of tahini, lemon or lime, garlic, salt, water. Add parsley and dill and a touch of green chili. Very delicious. Better than the fish she served, tiny fish with lots of bones. Straight from the sea. She believes the sea is not polluted in this region, it is further south. I wonder.
The invitation impossible to resist: dance the debka, the Palestinian national dance
While visiting one of MECA’s project in collaboration with New Horizons
Living along the sea she often buys fish directly from the fishers, not using the market. She confirmed the restrictions: most fishers stay very near the shore. A few fish out to an Israeli imposed 3-mile limit. No one goes out further, even tho the Oslo Accords of 1993 grant rights to 20 miles. She also confirmed what I’d heard first from Noam Chomsky, disbelieving his claim, and then more recently from Palestinians, that the Israelis are pumping or drilling the natural gas deposits off the coast of Gaza. We could see the ships or rigs. She views their lights at night. I joshed about wishing to photograph them—maybe hire a boat, Mona, we could go together?
At her apartment window, looking out on a destroyed Hamas compound
Mona was outside the country during Cast Lead, but her friend Alexia, the first female pharmacist in Gaza, was home during the assault. Alexia lives in a building near a government center, the siarea. First a few rockets hit the center, then a bunch, some 14, rapid fire, feeling like an earthquake was hitting. She screamed, thought she’d die. Her building was damaged, windows blown out. She survived without injuries. Earlier, walking past the crumpled Hamas building I’d photographed with Mona’s help, she pointed out an adjacent building that had been damaged during the assault on the government building. Part of the home collapsed, trapping an old lady and others beneath the rubble. Miraculously, all were saved.
NOOR & AHMED
Ahmed confided to me that he truly loves Noor, and is confident she loves him. I see that in how they laugh together, touch each other, help each other tell a story of mutual interest and involvement. To some large extent they are examples of the story I’m reading in the novel by Daisy Newman, Indian Summer of the Heart, paralleling Oliver falling in love with Loveday, both in their 70s. Everything has changed since meeting Noor, Ahmed confided to me, exactly as Oliver says about meeting Loveday. What a powerful tonic love is, an ecstatic moment, short lived in many cases. So the task becomes how to transform that tonic into a life long devotion?
Counterpoised with love or falling in love, is death, or declining to death. Death also captures one’s attention, rivets the being on one state, dying. All else pales. I’ve yet to experience that, but I might, sooner than I expect. In Gaza death is ever-present, more so than usual, certainly more so than during my quotidian life in the United States—death an uninvited and persistent guest. Greetings death! Greetings life! Greetings love! Love can flourish even more powerfully in the midst of danger, suffering, and despair.
You don’t have to go looking for love when it’s where you come from.
TO BE CONTINUED
“Palestinian civil society reaffirms support for persecuted French BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement) activists”—statement by the Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee