I’ll fly away

A Palestinian boy prepares to fly a kite on one of Gaza’s beaches. (Emily Ratner)

5 June 2009

My phone will not stop ringing. Earlier today I stood in the sun on a farm just 700 meters from Israel’s border with Gaza, photographing young Palestinians flying kites high above the armored Israeli trucks patrolling the barbed wire fence in the distance. As I attempted to leave the farm and young folk tried to pull me into their homes to meet their moms and peaked under my head scarve to see the color of my hair, I gave my mobile number to some new friends. We have no common language, but still they repeatedly send a digital signal out into space, to be bounced back down to these borders and into my phone. They burn precious credit on their mobiles just to be heard, to feel a connection to someone who knows a world beyond the barbed wire and ships and trucks and bullets and bombs.

A friend recently told me that the late Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish once said that every night before he fell asleep he would walk the streets of his stolen city of al-Birwa in his mind. Each night he would remember the door to every home, every sign, every detail of his lost neighborhood. More than one Palestinian here has told me that they have a similar nighttime routine, except when they close their eyes they float up from their beds, through their windows, beyond the lights of the patrolling Israeli ships and armored trucks, and out into the night sky, free to roam the world. The people of Gaza close their eyes to visit our great cities — and they always dream of flying.

After I left the border, I walked along the coast near the flat where I’m staying. Exams ended today, and the beach is packed with families. Above them, homemade kites dot the sky. Palestinian youth make their kites from discarded plastic bags, threading shredded pieces of used notebook paper into long tails and binding the plastic to frames made of sticks. When the kites eventually land their details are beautiful and personal — lines of handwritten homework dance on their tails, and often a clipped magazine photo of a cherished sheikh, a political leader, or a celebrity is taped to the plastic so that when flying, the figure looks down onto the beach and out over the sea.

Everywhere we go we see these kites. Yesterday I watched a young boy tie a small plastic bag to a piece of string and let the wind carry it behind him. Much of the art that comes from Cuba features boats, a symbol of escape for islanders isolated by the harsh embargo and travel restrictions of the US and its partners. Here the water is very much a symbol of escape, but I think that when Gazans go to the sea for escape they look up, above the ever-present Israeli ships and into the sky.

Yesterday we walked past the Palestinian Airlines building, closed since the Israelis bombed Gaza’s airport during the first year of the second Palestinian intifada in 2001. Even though the airline has been irrelevant for the people of Gaza for nearly a decade, the airline’s proud sign remains. Almost all of the young people I talk to tell me they will go to America soon, to work. Everyone I’ve met over the age of 18 is in college or already has at least one degree, but with a siege-induced unemployment rate near 80 percent there is no hope of finding work here. So the people sit, looking out over the sea and into the sky, waiting for their wings.

Last night I had the great fortune to attend Hip Hop Kom, a nation-wide Hip-Hop competition. Rappers from Gaza and the West Bank participated in front of live audiences in a single show set in two locations, broadcast simultaneously in Gaza City and Ramallah. After the show I enjoyed an evening of hookah and lyricism with the members of DARG Team, who took first place, and Black Unit Band, who took third. Of the four most highly ranked teams, three are from Gaza. For placing first, DARG Team won a trip to Denmark to record their first album. The rappers have already named their record, but the title will remain a closely guarded secret until the album’s release.

Like so much of the art and culture coming out of Gaza, DARG Team’s rhymes and beats are brilliant and their performance dynamic, but they are almost completely unheard and unseen beyond these borders. A whole community came together to produce this competition and to celebrate DARG Team’s victory, but amidst our congratulations there is an unspoken heaviness as we all wonder if the rappers will ever be allowed to travel to Denmark to record. One of the community elders in the room who has not seen his wife and children in Nigeria for 13 years tells me he has been denied an exit from Gaza 16 times. Across the room, Sami, an Afro-Palestinian member of DARG Team, grins and sings the chorus of the African-American gospel song “I’ll Fly Away.”

I think often about my own border struggle, less than three days away. If I am denied the crossing I won’t be even a little sad. I would give anything to have more time here. I cannot know this frustration, of traveling time and again to Rafah only to be turned away. I know that with my American passport I will eventually cross, even if it takes some days. But as I crawl into bed to the sound of the call to prayer, surrounded by neighbors dreaming of flight, for the first time my dreams turn to flight as well. I dream of the honor of being tacked to a bit of plastic and thrown into the air to float over the Mediterranean, gently guided by small hands at the other end of a very long piece of string.

Emily Ratner is an organizer and mediamaker based in New Orleans. She is currently traveling in Gaza with a delegation of journalists, organizers and human rights workers from the US south. She can be reached at emily AT nolahumanrights DOT org and www.patoisfilmfest.org.