The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire by Atef Abu Saif (Comma Press)
The 51-day Israeli war on Gaza may be old news to those who follow the Middle East. What news junkies know are the numbers — at least 2,205 Palestinians killed, including 538 children; 11,000 wounded; up to 500,000 residents displaced; more than 20,000 homes destroyed. What they don’t have are the intimate, granular insights that you get only by living through it — or, reading the diary of someone who has, and is also an eloquent, evocative writer.
For instance, do you know how to tell the difference between a missile from a ship, a tank, an F-16 or a drone, by their sound alone? How to prepare your windows when shelling is expected, and where it is safest to sleep? Or what happens to your sense of time in the midst of war?
The Drone Eats With Me: Diaries from a City Under Fire, by Atef Abu Saif, is just such a book.
(What does a drone sound like? In one passage, Abu Saif describes it, while also giving the book its title: “As the noise of the explosion subsides, it’s replaced by the inevitable whir of a drone, sounding so close it could be right beside us. It’s like it wants to join us for the evening, and has pulled up a chair.”)
“Fragrance” of war
The diary leads the reader through “Operation Protective Edge” day by day. It’s almost as if you are Abu Saif’s neighbor in the al-Saftawi district of Gaza City or in the Jabaliya refugee camp, where he grew up and to which his family evacuated when his own neighborhood became too unsafe.
Although already the author of four novels and a political science text, Abu Saif did not write this book with publication in mind. Rather, it began as entries to his diary, printed only after Ra Page, founder of Comma Press, recognized the potential in the passages shared by his friend in Gaza.
The writing alternates between poignant simplicity and dramatic flourishes and haunting metaphors. Abu Saif often uses a comparison to hunger and eating to describe the rapaciousness of war and those who “feed” off of it. “Destruction is a rich meal for the media,” he writes. “Their camera does not observe the fast of Ramadan, it devours and devours. It is constantly eating new images.”
The diary begins on 6 July — two days before the officially declared beginning of the war — with this chilling observation: “When it comes, it brings with it a smell, a fragrance even. You learn to recognize it as a kid growing up in these narrow streets. You develop a knack for detecting it, tasting it in the air. You can almost see it. It lurks in the shadows, follows you at a distance wherever you go. If you retain this skill, you can tell that it’s coming — hours, sometimes days, before it actually arrives. You can’t mistake it. War.”
Normality and tragedy
Among the book’s surprising lighter notes is an ongoing thread related to Abu Saif and his beard. Throughout the diary, his wife Hanna and an old friend, the headmaster of the Jabaliya camp high school, nag him to get his beard trimmed — war or no war. Abu Saif stubbornly puts them off, irrationally insisting that he will return to his normal routine only when the fighting ends. Finally, after nearly a month, he gives in.
“Sometimes,” he writes, “it’s the smallest things that give the most solace. To have a shave after nearly three weeks of discomfort and itching is a blessed relief. It was a silly idea to mark the days of the war in millimeters of hair.”
Likewise, there are scenes to which any family can relate — such as when Abu Saif, his wife and their five small children gather around the television to watch SpongeBob SquarePants.
And then you turn the page and are hit with a shockingly different reality:
“Last night was a terrible chapter in the history of Gaza — especially for the eastern part of the city of Beit Hanoun. Tanks moved in from the border toward the residential areas, destroying everything in their way, erasing every building, every school, every orchard. You do not know whether the next shell will fall on your head. When you will be reduced to another number in the news. You think about what it means to disappear from the world, to evaporate like a drop of water, leaving no sign of your existence, and the thought drives you mad.”
From SpongeBob to the ever-present risk of obliteration. The contrast couldn’t be more jarring. That is the reality of Gaza. But the most profoundly disturbing chapter of the book is the afterword, written in February 2015:
“It’s been six months since the war ended, and reading over this diary now, my first instinct is to feel a little foolish about the hopes expressed on the last day of the war. For many thousands of Gazans, the suffering continues and the promises [of the ceasefire] seem to have all been broken. The war ended, officially, on 26 August, but for those who were left homeless or bereaved, or with their livelihoods destroyed, the war goes on. The only difference is the world isn’t watching anymore.”
In fact, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies warned: “Six months after the ceasefire was reached following the recent conflict in Gaza, tens of thousands of Palestinians in the Strip continue to live under dire conditions, as almost no reconstruction has taken place since the end of the violence.”
Even the violence hasn’t really ended. Although it’s nowhere in the mass media, Israeli forces fire regularly at fishermen and farmers trying to eke out a living in the boundary zones.
Abu Saif’s diary, and the discussion guide that goes along with it (available through an online download), are a reminder to all readers that the suffering and humanity of Gaza may be out of the headlines, but still cry for attention from a fickle world.