Elliott D. Woods, for the Pulitzer Center
Gaza City — It's too early to start talking about burnout, but let's face it — it's already here. It's not just me, it's the whole of the Gaza Strip.
The journalists who began flooding over the Rafah border crossing a few days before the Israeli cease-fire have practiced scorch-and-burn journalism among Gaza's war-weary population, and the endgame is near. The funerals have been chased, the flag-sheathed bodies buried, the tunnels explored, the cease-fires reported, the photos snapped, the wounds recorded, the tears collected into metaphors.
There has been no shortage of excellent work, but the work has been hard on the individuals who have facilitated it, and the doors are starting to close.
I don't mean that literally — we are still welcomed into homes and given the time of day, but there's a certain boredom with our questions and a sense that we have asked too much of our tired hosts. They're ready to get back to their lives, and we're ready to stop prying, ready to resume our own safe existences in the global locales from which we flocked to observe the suffering and destruction for a short time.
We have our passports. We have our exits. We have our flights booked and our families waiting on the other side. If there is more to be done here, it must be done differently.
And there's the rub.
Not only am I tired of asking the same questions — where is your family from, what was your first thought when you heard your neighborhood explode, what is your job, are you with Hamas or Fatah, how many kids do you have (Wow, nine! But you're only thirty-seven!), what does it feel like to raise children under siege, what would you say to Ehud Barak if you could sit with him face to face, how many sugars do you take in your tea, what's your favorite color — but I am also tired of forcing those hapless Gazans who cross my path to sit through them.
No doubt were I a better journalist I would not be faced with such a petty dilemma (having run out of new questions, or having lost the will to ask them), but even if I were a font of creative inquiry, I would still be faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem: no matter what my questions, there are only about three possible answers.
1. I am heartbroken.
2. Why does America call us terrorists?
3. Why does America help Israel bomb us?
I am simplifying the responses, to be sure, and I don't mean to be flippant about the frustration, the incomprehensibility of America's massive support for the Israeli military, or the extent of the destruction and sorrow that I see here everyday. What I hope to illustrate is the roadblock that makes my work here increasingly difficult; as I strive to break free from the routine of daily reporting, and as I attempt to move away from the questions listed above, I run headlong into a crisis of communication. I simply cannot get beyond stock answers, even when I ask the simplest questions.
Today I asked an elderly mother of eight, "How does it feel as a mother to raise children in such a dangerous place?"
Response: "Why does America help Israel bomb us?"
N.B. — I had an excellent translator today, and I had repeatedly insisted that I wanted a heartfelt answer to a very personal question. Finally, exasperated by my ineptitude at breaking past the barrier, I asked my translator to tell the woman that I did not want to hear the words "Israel" or "America" in her answer, and I did not want to hear any reference to 1948. I wasn't being rude, I just wanted so badly for her to share a sliver her own unique humanity with me, some aspect of her experience of life that would communicate a self apart from the daily headlines, distinct from the chorus that has echoed across the broadsheets and broadcasts in recent weeks, or recent decades for that matter.
In the end, it was a fruitless effort.
I am willing to admit the possibility that I am not a skilled enough interviewer to elicit the responses I crave. I have seen the masters at work, and I know I pale by comparison. But surely I am not the only one who feels like he is banging his head against the wall.
At the very least, I know that there are thousands of Gazans who have had enough of our cameras and notepads, who have had enough of our taxis with TV plastered on the doors, who have tired of seeing us stroll easily through their streets, excited to catch a scoop, ready and free to leave at any time.
Still, I have a magazine story to write, and I plan to be here for another three weeks or even a month, as long as I can hack it. If it weren't hard enough to get behind the scenes — because of social norms regarding a household's inner sanctuary and the women therein, or because of security issues — now it's getting harder to work in front of the scenes. People are simply tired. In a trip to the tunnels yesterday, no one had any interest in talking to us. One man told us his name and age, answered one question, then flashed a look of utter boredom and walked away.
I couldn't find it in myself to be angry, or even annoyed. I would've walked away too if I were him. But I'm not ready to walk away myself.
I remember a word of advice from a photography instructor: "You have to learn to outlast your subject." I've been trying.
But can anyone really outlast the Palestinian people?
Elliott D. Woods, for the Pulitzer Center