There are no prayer mats to be found in this empty border apartment, only years of sand accumulated on the empty floors. A chandelier’s broken crystals spread in wide sunrays in the salon from the underground explosion some few meters away a few weeks ago — the army blowing up the imagined tunnels of its dream, those phantoms. Everyone knows they don’t exist on this street, which has meticulously rid itself of armed resistance and smugglers, which does not prevent the army from blowing up dirt meters below the ground many times a week just next to the border homes, shattering their windows and shaking their foundations.
There are no prayer mats here so Fatima, Im Mahmood, lays her black mendeel on the dust in the aaser call to prayer. The dust breathes in the soft light of the mid-afternoon sun. Melissa and I lean out the window above the shattered chandelier and rest our eyes on the rust-colored, corrugated edges of the Wall a shout away.
This apartment has never been lived in but it has been abandoned now for two years. It was built on top of Im Mahmood’s home for her oldest son to move into when he married. That was before the army built a Wall. Before this Intifada and before the military towers at the end of Abu Jameel Street where Im Mahmood’s husband built their home. This was before the military tower shot Khalid, Im Mahmood’s youngest child, in the hand.
“They shined a laser on him. He saw a red light touch his chest, and then his leg, and then his head. He put his hand up to shield hs face and they shot him through the hand, just above his head.” In the same moment the tower shot Khalid’s 17-year-old friend in the head and he died. Khalid was 10 years old at the time and he couldn’t use his hand for months.
Im Mahmood tells us this story from the balcony of Mahmood’s marriage home, from where we can see the tower in plain view, and the place Khalid was shot just meters from his home. Her face is tight with the pain of homecoming to this place. “Shaifa? You see? Where is the peace? For what do they shoot a 10 year old child?”
Downstairs is the family’s apartment, still half-furnished, walls covered with history, old photographs and diplomas, prayer beads and prayers under layers of dust resting on the unlit dimness of the yellowing walls just as they were left. I have spent long hours in their new apartment in the center of the town and it is filled with the energy of the family and the smell of its kitchen, but you can tell coming here that these walls more than any place hold its history, and the dream of return.
They are not refugees in the classical sense — they are from the Qeshta family, the largest original family in Rafah. Still they have become refugees, forced violently out of their home, dreaming of return. The apartment itself remains a phantom of the future and the past, like the nostalgia of the undivided pre-48 maps. The family has left their history on the walls to wait for them in the time when the military towers have gone, when there is peace.
I think again of their home in the city center, the lush chairs in their salon, how I tend to forget where they come from and see them as a privileged class in Rafah — people lucky enough to live far from the border. I remind myself that every family has their own wealth of pain, as Im Mahmood goes through piles of trinkets left on her bed: delicate china party favors from weddings, school projects, and gifts from her children.
From the balcony she points to the street. “It’s a beautiful view, right?
“You see there? Once when we were still living here a tank drove in and parked right outside and shot at our home and the neighbors’ homes all night.” I know this story — Mahmood told me about the night he and his brother were working on the construction of their new apartment and ended up sleeping there because of the incursion where his family was. He and his brother lay down in the chill of the night and cried in the night while Apaches fired on their street a half a kilometer away.
These stories are stale by now, a side note to the day. Glances of recollections in the minutes before prayer. Downstairs Im Ahmed’s mother-in-law has left a gaping space where she left this world in her sleep after living alone for years. On the third day of the funeral the mourning house is still overflowing with visitors. The electricity has been out all day, and people pass around tea and dates between the dim walls.
This is the first time here in Rafah someone I have known in a wide parenthesis of time has died. The room is filled with the smell of her, with the breath of her hair and the softness of her silence. The people have come together to fill the space that she left behind, but no number of old loving women can fill the space that is still pregnant with her.
I imagine her as I knew her, crosslegged on the corner of the stoop outside her home, her daughter and neighbor next to her, shelling wheat or picking molokhia, gossiping about the day or sitting in silence. I imagine her spirit permanently crosslegged on the stoop, where she sat always in the same spot.
And all the people of the street come to greet her on their way to home. And she is everybody’s grandmother, for those she knows by name and for those whose names she has forgotten as time grows in her mind and unravels its memory. She has grown into her age with the gentle weight of an olive tree, which carries the weight of its fruit for months only to give it all away. She asks nothing of anyone and gives of her own love with a joy close to Allah.
Even in her eighty-second year she learns my name and my nationality. She greets me always on my way to homestays with her neighbors and remembers when I don’t come. She kisses my cheeks and asks about her son and her daughter-in-law and her grandchildren, who live above us in their apartment building, and she sends me on my way every time, without asking me to stay hours, but with an unspoken understanding. I come to her sometimes to visit when she’s laying down in her home, and we sit for minutes in silence with a shared understanding.
In the last days of Ramadan Mahmood walked into the computer shop where I was typing. He carried a plastic bag in his hand. “This is for you. I just came from visiting my grandmother.” She said she felt like the end was coming near and she told him to give a jalabiya of hers “to that American journalist, so that it won’t go to waste.” A week later she is, peacefully in her sleep, and I can’t help but feel a little joyful.
In the eight months I have been in Rafah, I have been going house to house, hearing the stories of shaheeds, (“martyrs”) the most respectable and the most loving hearts, violently taken from us before I could know them. The best of this world, gone almost anonymously from my life, staying in the peripheral memory of report writing and home visits. Impossible to keep track of. Names and dates and siblings, careers and dreams all meld into the fire of Occupation, heroic looking faces on the shaheed posters affixed to our wall.
Mahmood’s grandmother lived in the joy of loving others, and died in peaceful sleep. She left sweet memories like the taste of ripe olives giving forth in the autumn rains. Is there more we can ask of life than this? Is there more than the joy of a memory?
Near Maabar Rafah (Rafah Crossing Point), the only route for Gazans to travel internationally, thick with crowds and the military tower and tanks to control them at all hours, is the mourning home of Jihad Al-Akhras, the 17-year-old martyred at six pm three days ago. These are his mother’s words:
“My son worked at the Abour (Rafah Crossing Point). I have one other son who died before. They shot him at the door of his house.
“Jihad worked at the Abour and they shot him while he was not making any problem. We sleep here and they shoot at us here at night.
“Now, the army said ‘leave this place (the Abour, where he was bag handling).’ He ran away after the hearing it come from the loudspeaker from the tank which drove up. The tank said, ‘Leave this place.’ He put his hand on his head and said, ‘I’m not doing anything.’ They (the Israeli army) said he’s a commander. After that he peaded but they didn’t leave him - they shot and killed him.
“Now, the tank shot him in the foot. He ran away and put his hand on his head, pleading with the army not to shoot. Then he fell and took his hands off of his head and said Allahu akbar (“God is greater”) three times and they shot him again, a new bullet in the head. He said Allahu akbar because he wanted the people to come and save him but no one came. He is only a worker. He worked with them, with the Israelis, at Maabar. Why did they shoot him? They say he is a terrorist, but that country is a terrorist country.
“He worked in order to pay for his studies and because he wanted to help his family. My son, my first son, when he went to his work they killed him. He is married with two children. This is his son. When he stopped at his door to walk out, they killed him. What has the media done for his case?
“Sharon is the biggest terrorist and Bush even more so. All the press gives false information, which is very unfortunate.
“Jihad’s father doesn’t work and he is very old. He has seven children. Because of that Jihad used to study, and when he finished studying, go directly to work at Maabar. What can I say? La ilaha ila Allah (“There is no God but God”).
“He’s just a worker. Why did they make this with him, in his foot, in his hand, in his head? They shot out his brains and now his head is full of cotton. He’s not black, but when he died his face was white and he was smiling. In the end what can I say? Say to the American people, from where are do the Palestinian people get bombs or guns? (This is a rhetorical question)”
After they shot Jihad, they kept people from retrieving his body until the morning. In the morning, crowds of people gathered and some women attempted to retrieve his body, which was being guarded by the military. They carried it about three meters before being ordered away. Internationals also attempted to retrieve the body, also unsuccessfully. In the end the army took him away to scan for weapons, and then discharged it to the Red Crescent ambulance that was waiting on the other side.
The Israeli army said they had seen him carrying a weapon and that he shouldn’t have been out at night.
Five months before, the army shot Jihad’s 28-year-old brother, Wael, as he was walking out the door to go to work. Two days later they demolished the family’s home.