Rafah, home of the strongest people in the world

Photo by Ronald de Hommel

It’s past midnight and the only sound is the ceiling fan pushing the muggy summer air around and around, while no matter how hard I wash my skin still retains a faint layer of dirt, dust, and sweat.

The fan drowns out the sound of bullets, mostly, so you can sleep in our apartment now cloaked is some illusion of normalcy. We got the fans a couple of weeks ago, when the heat became unbearable and we were feeling rich.

The workers came and installed them in one night, and suddenly the apartment was transformed into a living space, which is an activity we’ve been prone to indulge in lately as a group — home furnishings and spring cleanings to give some sense of normality to our environment because it really is the only refuge. as soon as you step outside you are hit with a thousand realities, all being shouted in disharmony.

Taxi drivers are shouting destinations, children shouting “what’s your name,” men smoking shisha on storefront steps, “ahlen wa’sahlen,” a chorus of voices all day calling for their basic daily needs, always weighted with vital danger.

Transportation anywhere touches the border, passes checkpoints, weaves around settlements. and in the end, it may be nicer to stay at home, where at least, if you happen to be lucky enough to live far from the border, you don’t have to worry about bullets and bulldozers.

And if you plug in a ceiling fan, you might not even hear the sporadic fire all day, might not hear (if you don’t listen hard) the sounds of ambulances.

No one here asks, how was your day, and when we do, the answer is shrugs and hamdou’l’allah, (“Praise be to God”). Have faith God has something under control up in the sky, since from the ground he looks like a malicious beast, twisting basic humanity into something quite opposite.

A colleague of mine says she is jarred awake from time to time by the awareness that Rafah is hell. The other night we went to throw out old piles into the dumpster, and the trash was burning in the dark bright orange container like a furnace, soda cans shrunk up, plastic melting together, dividing the mundanity of the night into fumes.

Down the road a few men were still out and their voices filled the air more than usual, but most everyone had gone home to their families for the night. Our footsteps echoed individually in the stillness.

In the daytime, no such emptiness. One of the most heavily populated places on earth, Rafah is overflowing with people. Children run through the streets, fearless and old from their daily interactions with death. Old women with bad knees sitting without cushions, hands calloused and strong from decades of peeling vegetables and carrying children. They are veiled in white; they have earned the name “Um” after pushing through childrearing, the way men wear respect by being named “Abu” followed by their first son’s name.

They must be the strongest people in the world, having battled endlessly to arrive to this stoop, fought to retain personal dignity in the face of war, having grown up in a culture that has been so badly distorted by decades of violent imperialism that it has sought out cultural and religious conservatism not even native, not even representative, brought on by increasing need to show proof of faith, proof of God, in tangible things. Skewing ritual with truth.

The heaviness hangs in the air. Before the first Intifada, you could find women smoking in the streets, wearing miniskirts. you could find, somewhat illicitly, alcohol or a nightlife. Now, they say, for every house demolished, the people of Rafah build a mosque. For every house gone to dust there is a muezzin’s cry five times a day announcing God in desperation. Everywhere from markets to hospital rooms qur’an is chanting over somebody’s speaker, the only thing that can really really heal when everything is so beyond repair.

We passed by the United Nations office building today on the way to visit a martyr’s tent, they had patched the UN building up after months of wearing a blanket of bullet holes from Israeli shelling.

Not so the orphanage by the well which still bears the evidence of nightly shootings from the Rafiah Yam settlement across the way. Apparently the large congrete water tower with graphics of children and S-O-S displayed in enormous letters is not sufficient information for the soldiers in the military tower one-hundred yards away.

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.