Elliott Woods, for the Pulitzer Center
Elliott Woods traveled to Gaza on a Pulitzer Center grant
Gaza City — A few minutes ago, as I was walking back from the peculiarly named Popeye Coffee Shop, a dull thumping in the sky raised the hair on my neck. "Oh great," I thought. "The Apaches are back." I quickened my steps toward home as the noise grew louder until it seemed like it was right behind me. I turned to look over my shoulder, and to my relief, I saw a kid on a beat-up motorbike pulling around a corner in my neighborhood. The dreadful Apache of my imagination, loaded with Hellfire missiles and orders to kill, turned out to be a kid out for a spin before bed.
When I first arrived, my Gazan hosts practically wet their pants laughing when they saw how I shuddered at the sound of nearby explosions. But one of them — middle-aged, thick-necked Mahdi — later admitted to me, "We're all scared, all the time."
Now that I have been here for almost a month — mostly during the so-called cease-fire — I can feel the continual threat in my bones. It's an ever present unease, like a headache or a hangover that doesn't keep you in bed, but keeps you conscious of the fact that something isn't quite right.
What must it be like to live with this sort of uncertainty, this deadly anxiety, for years on end? What must it feel like to know that one is completely at the mercy of flying death machines? That's what the aircraft are, after all — the drones, the Apaches, the F-16s and F-15s that must appear to those on the other side of the border as so many guardian angels hovering above.
I'm amazed by the ability of my Gazan friends to brush off that anxiety, to continue on with their daily lives and find the mental breathing space to laugh and joke around, to study and work and plan for the future. As for me, I feel like there's a vice grip slowly tightening at my temples, and every time I hear the buzz of the "zanana" — Arabic onomatopoeia for "drone" — the vice cranks a notch or two tighter.
I've been reading a wonderful, heartbreaking book about one woman's attempt to cover Palestine and the Middle East over the decades, and towards the end she includes a segment about a Palestinian writer who finally starts to succumb to the frenetic pace and lurking threat that one must deal with in order to report in Palestine.
The author's name is Ahdaf Soueif, and her book is Mezzaterra: Fragments from the Common Ground (Bloomsbury 2004). In an essay titled "Palestinian Writers," Soueif asks her friend, Palestinian writer Liana Badr, "Does the occupation affect you as a writer?" Liana Badr responds, "Yes it affects my writing. I can't work for very long. It's as though concentration becomes claustrophobic. The situation controls you. It affects you like a fever; it's always there. It's very hard to concentrate on one thing. I find myself trying to work on several projects at once."
Soueif follows this passage with a commentary on her experiences with Badr over the years, showing the gradual wear and tear of the occupation on Badr as a writer and a human: "When I first met Badr, ten years ago, I was impressed by her energy, her output, her looks, her will to optimism. When I saw her last year there were dark circles under her eyes, her words seemed speeded up, her energy more brittle."
Back to Badr: "The writer . . . feels a need to create the world from the beginning every time — and that is even stronger as you see your world vanishing in front of your eyes." "The given are very ugly. I'm obsessed now with the emotions that a person has as she tries to remain human under circumstances like these. To try to create the aesthetic form under such ugly circumstances is a big challenge."
To try to create the aesthetic and distill a tangible representation of life under the occupation — under the "zanana," under Hamas, in the chilling presence of Fatah's ghost of failure, from the emotional and psychological cauldron that is the Gazan population — is no easy project. To try to do so in a daily news story is still more difficult. Thank God for magazines, literary non-fiction, fiction, poetry — if only those media had the ability to wow the American audience and imagination with their complexity and beauty as effectively as cable news stuns them into submission, into dazed acceptance of the inarguable boundaries described by words like "terror" and "Islam," the boundaries that keep that keep the human world and all its ambiguity hidden from sight.