Sprouting from death

Rafah is already under attack; where will people go if Israel conducts a major offensive there? 

Abed Rahim Khatib DPA via ZUMA Press

It’s almost 5 am in al-Mawasi Rafah. And we’ve been hearing the sounds of Israeli bombs since midday yesterday.

They’re intermittent, maybe two or three every couple of hours.

There’s a saying here that if you can hear them, then you’re okay. For reasons I don’t yet understand, people who are bombed don’t hear the explosive metallic hatred that buries them alive, tears their limbs, burns their faces and steals life from them even if they survive.

People no longer pay attention to their booms, except to utter ya sater, a perfunctory prayer to protect whomever, wherever.

As the world has gotten smaller and dimmer here, conversations swirl around two topics – food and bombs – repeating with daily updates. What did one eat, what is there to eat, what will one eat, how long will one’s stock last, how will they get the next meal, what aid has been allowed in, how high are the prices, how many have starved or are starving to death.

Apples were the talk of the town last week. They appeared in the market for the first time since Israel forbade, then restricted the entry of foods.

For the majority of Palestinians here, it was their first taste of fresh fruit in almost seven months. Those with mobile phones filmed their first bites.

Other fresh foods have not followed, but apples abound, even though most cannot afford them.

Talk surrounding bombs are more varied. Of course, it’s not just bombs, but tanks and snipers, spy and killer drones and a host of other death technology.

Imminent assault

Most agree that an assault on Rafah – Gaza’s southernmost city – is imminent. A video circulating social media shows an Israeli commander hyping up his unit by promising they will wipe Rafah away like they did Shujaiya, Beit Hanoun, Khan Younis.

The soldiers grunt and cheer, affirming the fervor of genocide.

“Have you seen the video?” some ask.

But most have not. They don’t have internet.

“Where are we supposed to go now?” they ask.

The poet Mahmoud Darwish once asked, “Where do birds fly after the last sky?”

The meager tents of the displaced have already taken root. The precarious assemblage of string, cloth, wood and plastic have been filled with items slowly accumulated over half a year of a Zionist genocidal war.

Donated stove plates and propane tanks, plates and flatware, blankets, clothes, bedrolls, notebooks, food, toothbrushes and other things of living neatly arranged on makeshift shelves and hooks, cannot be easily moved.

“How can we carry it all?”

“How do we move again?”

People are tired.

“My heart can’t take it. Just let them bomb us. Death is better than this life.”

Where are we supposed to go now?

Where do birds fly after the last sky?

To Nuseirat in the Middle Area. That’s the rumor.

Tanks just pulled out of there. But snipers are still positioned in some buildings, so we hear.

And Israel keeps bombing places they’ve evacuated. Like Khan Younis.

Burning our history

Majeda, my friend of over 20 years, takes me to Khan Younis to see the grim remains of her beloved city, her house and neighborhood. This once vibrant ancient town of multi-storied family homes, gardens, color, music, restaurants, souqs, shops and cafés has been transformed into a gray landscape of rubble, chewed up roads, crushed cars, decaying bodies, emaciated animals, dead animals and dust so thick it simply cannot settle.

You breathe it in as you walk through this architecture of colonial jealousy, hatred, supremacy and greed.

“This is where the family books were.” Majeda points to an area of white ash.

“Strange how small the ash pile is for so many hundreds of books,” she says.

I know she’s not just talking about the number of those books, but the vast world they contained.

These weren’t ordinary books. The novels and usual sort were in another room, in another ash pile.

These books were precious and irreplaceable handwritten texts.

Majeda comes from a prominent family that held positions of authority and kept social and legal records over centuries of contiguous life in that ancient city – land purchases, birth and death records, family disputes, marriages, crimes, money accounts, food stocks, wars and more. Leatherbound and stacked on the shelves of their family home, those books had been a family anchor to a fabled history that Zionists covet and claim as their own.

Only by burning our lived history can foreigners replace it with their biblical mythos and fantasy.

My friend points to a fallen tree trunk splayed across what used to be the entrance to her house, where most of the ancient tile is thankfully still intact and can be salvaged. “This was a Christmas tree my dad planted about 30 years ago,” she says.

They’re Muslim, but like most Palestinian Muslims, she loves and celebrates Christmas.

“How long do you think it would take to rebuild the city if we had all the money and materials we need?” my friend asks me. She poses the same question to everyone who has witnessed the unimaginable destruction I saw.

A year, I think.

“No, I think I can rebuild my house in six months,” she insists.

I had given her the wrong answer. But she agrees it will take decades to restore their garden.

Lemon, olive, peach, clementine and orange trees take at least that long to mature.

“But look!”

She points to a green stem and leaf sprouting from the charred remnants of a bombed tree.

This ordinary manifestation of ordinary botanical cycles feels like a miracle. To her (and I admit to me, too), it is a promise that Gaza’s native life will return.

It will sprout from death, because the colonizer’s bombs cannot reach the depths of her people’s roots, no matter how much of us they burn, kill or break.

susan abulhawa is a writer and activist. She is a founder and director of the Palestine Writes Literature Festival.