A quiet night on Rafah’s sliding scale

Rafah, occupied Gaza, 10 June 2003 — It is still light out when we get to Abu Jameel’s garden. Rows of cactus line the road, bulbous green hedges expanding the boundaries between gardens. Cement box houses punctuate the land, which is a flat expanse of greenery and sand. It is the season for corn, and stalks reach high as somebody’s head. Watermelon vines cover the earth, weaving here and there around large squashes.

“This all, no chemicals,” his face lights up as he drops down to pull off a flower from the end of a squash and explains pollination. Along the edge of the garden, long black irrigation tubes deposit slow drips of water to every individual growing thing. Abu Jameel is crouching on the ground, his face lit up by something inside, examining his work.

Over a ways, in the open area, there is a pile of dried cactus and a few watermelons, not yet ripe, picked for this night especially. We are here to experience goursa, the summer feast here in Palestine reaching back into centuries of tradition.

And the men trickle in from the end of the day, on donkey and on horse and on foot, brown-faced men like the warm sun setting, end of the day. Greetings and tea, soft air. They crouch to light the cactus pile and the fire grows large in the evening. The watermelons, small like softballs, are lain in the flames and piles of dried sticks thrown atop. The fire grows strong and then dies down; another pile of sticks is added, the whole thing burning large until the watermelons have blackened and lay in a pile of coals. The men with their warm hands wash the burnt skin of the watermelon in water basins and the water blackens, leaving small white balls like dinasour eggs.

The men bring a long flatbread dough to the fire, raking coals and cactus ash over one side, and then the other; even fire is not wasted in Rafah. The ashes are beaten off by wooden slabs and what remains is chewy like half-cooked cornbread. We sit around a bowl, there are ten of us, ripping apart pieces of dough and throwing them in with the cooked watermelon, which has been mixed together with tomatoes, lemon, jalepenos, and a tremendous share of garlic. The fragrances blend: garlic, smoke, tomatoes and warm dough, “all fresh” reminds Abu Jameel. And the men mix everything together with their hands, and we all start eating at once, and nobody says anything for a while.

We are on the border but it is a quiet night. Even the moon is quiet.

Abu Jameel rescues some goursa for Noura and the children, who can’t attend this feast because someone has to stay at home. Around here there are enough informants that if you leave your border house unguarded for any length of time bulldozers will come and take it away from you. So Noura is homebound, on 24-hour bulldozer defense while Abu Jameel works his garden, thinking every minute of his family.

Thinking of home, which is not more than fifty meters from the Salah El-Deen military tower. The house that Abu Jameel built, with his own hands as he builds everything. Home which is now full of bullet holes from two-and-a-half years of nightly doses of fire. He built it up large enough to hold not only his own, but also his children’s families. A lifetime’s work, a lifetime’s earnings, the dreams of future generations, descecrated nightly.

And in the end we all know what no one says above a whisper. Abu Jameel’s house is going to be demolished. Despite Abu Jameel’s hopes the collaborators might tell the Israeli army that a good man lives here and he won’t leave. And despite his conviction that the boys manning the border must have some compassion; his belief that they will take into consideration our countless announcements over loudspeakers on the roof, to the military tower and the occupied house, a family lives here and they can’t sleep while you are shooting. They are unarmed. Please don’t shoot.

Back in the garden the plants form large nebulous shadows against the sky, and as we pass our capacity to take any more food into our bodies, the conversation takes over. The large lanky man with the knit green cap comes to us by way of twenty years doing stuntwork in movies made in Israel; now he lives outside of Rafah with his family, working his farm, forbidden to pass into Israel, riding his horse to find us here.

He can remember the peace circus at a kibbutz just outside of Gaza. He can remember, as anyone who used to work in Israel will say, good times. Now, he widens his pose along the bench to begin his act. A water bottle turns a sheckel blue. Cigarette ash walks through skin. And then he gets our friend Ahmed with a spray of water direct in the face, and we roll on the floor giggling while Ahmed makes a visible effort to contain his outrage at the indignity.

Then it is 10:30 and it is already too late. Abu Jameel picks up the bowl of rescued goursa and we stumble out into the dark and wander home. Shooting near the airport half a kilometer away accompanies us on our walk back, meandering between rows of cactus as we walk towards the city center. In Hay Ijnena, far from the border, people are still out, out all night. This is the safe part of Rafah. We run into a friend of ours from Yibneh refugee camp along the border, and he looks more chipper than usual. First thing he says is “This is Hay Ijnena. Tanks don’t come here.” I try to imagine this place as the downtown of Rafah, the place you are supposed to go at night to have fun. Taking in the fun standard in Rafah, where a good time means walking around at night safely. It’s a sliding scale.

Murmurs of Salaam as we find our doorways, inside the air is sticky from mosquitoes and we go to bed directly, falling deep into our thin mattresses. Outside a rooster crows. The animals cry all night. The muezzin barely sleeps. And along the borders, those who never sleep, the men driving large armed vehicles, crashing the party, creating dead dreams in the middle of the night.

Laura Gordon is a 20-year-old American Jew who came to Israel in December 2002 with the Birthright Israel program and proceeded, three months later, to begin work with the International Solidarity Movement in Rafah. She moved to Rafah two days after Rachel Corrie was killed and has been there since. She works primarily in media work and documentation; and also to liase between the Rafah community and the international community through summer camp projects, cooperative building projects, and English teaching.