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Atef Abu Saif on the war in Gaza, literature and orange orchards

“In the end when you see those kids dying every day and old men and women killed, you want to survive. You think life is very cheap. Human life, which is the most precious, doesn’t mean anything and this is very dangerous. Earth was made for human beings, not for anything else. Allah made the universe for us as human beings and now we are the cheapest of God’s creations.”

Atef Abu Saif was born in Jabaia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip in 1973. He attended school in Gaza. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Birzeit and a masters’ degree from Bradford. Recently, he received his Ph.D. in political and social sciences from the European University Institute in Florence. He is the author of four novels: Shadows in the Memory (1997), The Tale of the Harvest Night (1999), Snowball (2000), and The Salty Grape of Paradise (2003 & 2006). He also published a collection of short stories entitled Everything is Normal. Abu Saif is also the author of Civil Society and the State: Theoretical Perspective with Particular Reference to Palestine, published in Amman in 2005. He is a regular contributor to several Palestinian and other Arabic language newspapers, journal and literary supplements.

Wednesday was the seventeenth day of the war in Gaza; the seventeenth day of the bombing, shelling, constant ambulance sirens, loss of loved ones and the widespread infliction of injuries. For Atef Abu Saif it was the seventeenth day of waking up not knowing which houses in his neighbourhood had been reduced to rubble.

The Israeli army has already bombarded the street where he lives; the aftershock blew out all the glass in his windows. Tanks surround the neighbourhood yet he says it is drones and F16s which are the main enemy. Last night a shell killed his elderly neighbour and left one of her grandchildren critically injured.

Saif, who is both a writer and a professor of political science at Al-Azhar University in the Gaza Strip, is now living at his father-in-law’s house along with 17 others. Most Palestinians are taking shelter in UNRWA’s schools. Each building is now home to some 4,000 men, women, children and elderly, with 40 to a classroom.

“The main question everybody is asking in Gaza now, is when is this truce coming? When is this war ending?” says Saif. “The window I am standing in front of now is overlooking one of these schools in Jabalia camp. People are spending all their days in these schools, waiting for the war to end.”

Just 11 days before the attacks started The Book of Gaza was published. Edited by Saif, published by Comma Press, it draws together contemporary short stories set against the backdrop of one of the most talked about cities in the world. The stories consider oppression, anxiety, violence and hope; the latest bombardment proves that these themes are timeless, or at least ongoing in the Strip.

Saif’s contribution, “A journey in the opposite direction” is filled with descriptions of fruit – orange fields, date palms and cherries. He explains his childhood was filled with orange orchards and flowers. The north of the Strip, where his aunt lives, was once abundant in strawberries. “The Gaza strawberry is very sweet,” he says. “Gaza was a kind of garden.”

Much of this fruit has been lost in the last 15 years of war and destruction, the Intifada and the increase in population. “We had to cut down the orchards because Gaza is not made for having two million people living in it,” he says. The vast number of refugees makes Gaza one of the most densely populated parts of the world.

As for the current crisis, where a kilogramme of tomatoes was once one shekel it now sells for eight and the quality is low. Said explains, these days it’s hard to even buy vegetables in a shop given that grocery stores are only open a few hours at a time.

“One of the things that is going to foreshadow the human crisis, if this war continues, is that there aren’t going to be any vegetables in Gaza in a few days. Most of the people who were displaced and are in the schools now come from the rural areas, the areas full of orchards. Nobody is taking care of their tomatoes, their aubergines, and their fruit.”

The supply of newspapers has also suffered. Printed in Ramallah, during times of war they are not allowed into the Strip. It’s a Palestinian habit, says Saif, particularly amongst the older generations, to listen to the news and a characteristic which often finds its way into his novels. With electricity for four hours a day and very limited access to the internet, Palestinians in Gaza now rely on the radio.

“You’re listening, changing from one channel to another, trying to pick up what is going on. You are helpless and unable to know what’s going on around you. You can just hear the sounds, the bombing, but you don’t know where it is or who has been killed, who is injured, whose house was destroyed. The radio connects you to the world outside.”

After iftar (the meal to break the fast in Ramdan) Saif sits with his friends, smokes nargelah and listens to the broadcasts. “Sometimes talking helps you understand what’s going on, even if you lie to yourself. We try to exchange ideas, such as ‘what is the purpose of this?’ In the end when you see those kids dying every day and old men and women killed, you want to survive. You think life is very cheap. Human life, which is the most precious, doesn’t mean anything and this is very dangerous. Earth was made for human beings, not for anything else. Allah made the universe for us as human beings and now we are the cheapest of God’s creations. We kill each other.”

Saif is writing his own personal narrative of the war by recording events of the day and personal reflections. Because of the electricity shortage he has reverted to writing by hand to save the battery on his laptop. Still, he manages to write every day. “Through writing you can say ‘I don’t want to forget the war’, ‘this should end’.

“You write because you believe that through writing you can exist. Through writing you can capture moments, that nobody else can, only you. Like when you’re looking at this school in front of me where the boys are playing football in the playground. They’re trying to make sense out of this chaos. You, as a writer, you are re-ordering things out of the disorder. You are trying to make something beautiful out of this ugliness.

“You want to tell the next generation that there was this event where human beings existed, where an old woman was killed and where people are queueing to go to the bathroom as they are now. More than 20 women are queueing to go to the bathroom,” he says, reflecting again on his view from the window.

When he was young Saif spent five months in jail during the first Intifada and has been shot at twice by the Israeli army. When he was eight years old he was arrested for throwing stones. He recalls him mother asking the Israeli captain to let him go – “he doesn’t understand politics,” she said, “He’s only a boy.”

“Even the donkeys in Gaza understand politics,” the captain replied.

Whilst the situation in Gaza is highly politicised, Saif believes literature shouldn’t be. “I know all the chapters and the pains of the Middle East issue, but at the same time I believe that this cannot continue forever. It’s only literature which can.” It’s on this basis he decided he did not want writers “who talk politics” for the Book of Gaza.

Palestine has the highest number of politicians per person in the Arab world. It has 17 political parties and two governments for a nation of around 10 million, and the largest political issue in the twentieth century until now. “We don’t need more of this,” he continues, “We need literature. We need human beings to survive. We need to see what people look like. At the same time, the search for freedom is not only politics. It can be social as well.”

He also wanted to present an alternative view of Gaza, not the one which frequents the news. “In the Strip, which is 300 kilometres long with eight refugee camps, you will find stories that you find in London and Tokyo and Berlin. There is life, there are people who love and hate, there are people who feel jealous, and there is an old woman who takes care of her grandson. It’s not only about struggle and fighting. In Gaza there are people who aspire for freedom and different forms of freedom – social freedom, political freedom – we wanted to say this is the different Gaza that you don’t see in the news.

“I think as an author sometimes you feel you are given this power to keep the soul of the people around you. I describe myself as the watch keeper of darkness. You look in this darkness – it’s very dark, believe me in the night nobody sees what’s going on even if they open their eyes. You have to go deep inside this darkness and paint the reality. I think it’s a very hard mission if you want to be a good author. But it’s very necessary.”

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