I’ve been reading Laila Haddad’s book Gaza Mom and ghostwriting another book about Israel/Palestine, and it’s left me thinking about two things: Gaza and editing.

In the book I just finished ghostwriting, really interesting things had to be left out because they didn’t drive the narrative forward, or because they relied too much on extraneous sources.

Below is a section from my book (Chapter 12) that had to be left out for both of these reasons. It was a great story in its own right. But it didn’t quite ‘fit’ with the rest of my book, not least because the most interesting parts of the story come from a CNN article and a Guardian article. And because I’d traveled to the Gaza Strip a couple of months earlier to witness the Disengagement, so another Gaza trip right on its heels seemed redundant. And because there’s a deeply inappropriate joke at the end (whose purpose is to convey how frustrating getting into and out of Gaza really is — nothing more).

But I’d hate to delete this story altogether and consign it to a folder in the back of my computer. So here it is. I’ll publish other outtakes as time goes on. There were just too many great stories to fit into one book.

Gaza Holiday

On November 3, 2005, after Ramadan was over, John the half-Palestinian from Kentucky and I headed for the Gaza Strip for the three-day Eid al Fitr feast holiday. One of John’s students at the Friend’s School in Ramallah, Yousef Bashir, had invited him to spend the holiday with his family in Gaza.

Unfortunately, Yousef couldn’t join us because he was afraid that if he did, the Israelis wouldn’t allow him to leave again and return to Ramallah to continue his studies.

I was on tenterhooks about whether I would get in to Gaza. I had no idea when or whether my permit to enter Gaza would expire. But somehow we got through the Erez crossing without a fuss, and Yousef’s father Khalil Bashir was on the other side, waiting for us in his car.

The long, dark tunnel into Gaza

View upon entering Gaza

Khalil Bashir

He was a calm man, medium height with light grey hair and tanned olive skin, young-looking for his 54 years, and he was the headmaster of the Rudolf Walther School. When he saw us, he welcomed us with even more outstanding warmth and hospitality than usual for Palestinians — and that’s saying something.

But it was no surprise, given that he had been forbidden from welcoming visitors into his home for the past five years.

Their home was unlucky enough to be located near an Israeli settlement called Kfar Darom, an outpost of religious Israelis, near the town of Deir al Balah in the central Gaza Strip. When the second Intifada started, the Israeli army ordered Mr. Bashir, his wife Suad, and their eight children to leave the house. They said the windows of the top two floors might be used by Palestinian snipers to target the settlement.

View of the now-destroyed Kfar Darom settlement from the Bashirs' upper floors

Mr. Bashir refused. He said, “This place is the cradle of my childhood. I don’t want to commit the mistake my people made in 1948. I don’t want to be a refugee.”

So Israeli soldiers took over their home and occupied it in a way that paralleled the occupation as a whole. The top two floors were ‘Area C’ — completely off limits. The Bashirs were warned that if they ventured up the stairs, they would be shot. The kitchen and bathroom were ‘Area B,’ meaning Israeli soldiers had priority and the family had to ask permission to use them.

Only the living room on the first floor was ‘Area A,’ meaning they could enter and use it as they saw fit, though they couldn’t invite guests in without permission from the Israeli soldiers.

Mrs. Bashir told The Guardian, “Occupation is getting up in the morning to make tea and finding a soldier in your kitchen making coffee. Occupation is when I wanted to go to the toilet, a soldier had to go with me. I wasn’t allowed in my bedroom. I looked in on my way to the toilet one day and there was a soldier with no clothes on in my bed.”

It also meant that Israeli soldiers bulldozed the Bashirs’ greenhouses and fruit orchards, including 170 date palms, which had provided their relative wealth. It meant Mr. Bashir was regularly forced to strip to his underwear on his own doorstep before entering the house, often in front of his children.

The date palms Deir al Balah used to be famous for, before Israel destroyed nearly all of them.

It meant the family had to endure battles between the soldiers and militants trying to infiltrate the nearby settlement. It meant their home being scarred with bullet holes and damaged by missiles. In April of 2001, bullets crashed through a window and threw shrapnel that lodged in Mr. Bashir’s skull.

Despite all this, Mr. Bashir had vowed that no matter what happened, he would not hate.

“I witnessed three wars and two intifadas and now I’m thinking of my children’s future,” he said. “I don’t want them to see war, and the only way to prevent that is to overcome the mountain of suspicion. We are destined to live together with the Israelis. If we let our wounded memory guide our future steps we will have only pain.”

He hoped at first that being confined with soldiers might provide an opportunity for each side to humanize and understand the other. But he found this more difficult than he could have imagined.

“They behaved professionally but they didn’t leave room for human contact. Their orders were not to be friendly with us,” he said.

The misery of this most intimate occupation was taken to a new level when his son Yazen was shot in the leg in 2000 by an Israeli soldier while he was collecting water to put out a fire in the garden that had been set by an Israeli army flare. The injury, luckily, wasn’t life-threatening.

Then in 2004, a UN convoy came to check on the family. There wasn’t much they could do about the horrible situation they witnessed, but it was a sign that at least someone in the world was paying a little bit of attention.

As the UN observers were leaving, Mr. Bashir and his 15-year-old son Yousef walked outside to wave good-bye. While they were waving, a soldier on their roof — an officer, a captain — took aim and shot Yousef in the back.

The UN and Mr. Bashir’s friends at the German Embassy frantically pressured Israel to let Yousef be treated a hospital in Israel due to the severity of the injury. Thankfully they were successful. The bullet lodged near Yousef’s spine and left him unable to walk for a year. He eventually regained the use of his legs, but doctors warned him not to engage in even moderate exercise because the bullet might shift and paralyze him permanently. He can never again play any sports or even swim in the sea.

“This is what occupation has left us: a bullet in my son’s back,” Mrs Bashir said. “If we try to remove it, it could paralyse him. But the doctors say that if they leave it there, in a few years it is going to do more damage. It is like a timebomb from the occupation.”

Astonishingly, Yousef emerged from the ordeal without bitterness toward Israelis. Taking his father’s lessons to heart, he said, “I have to divide the Israelis [into] the soldier and the citizen. The citizens gave me the medical care in Israel. The soldiers just obey the orders. It was just one person who made me suffer but many of the same people, the Israeli people, gave me my life back.”

The German-funded school where Mr. Bashir served as headmaster

Yousef soon joined Seeds of Peace, a camp in Maine that brought Israeli and Palestinian youths together to interact and humanize each other. He was a proud and enthusiastic participant and said he wished to become an “ambassador of peace” for the program.

John had asked Yousef one time how he could sit across the table, and sleep, canoe, dialogue — all peacefully — with Israelis, the same people who had turned his life in Gaza into a living misery. And do it cheerfully.

John asked him candidly: “Why? Why do you forgive?”

Yousef’s answer was short and simple: “Because I want to live.”

The recent Disengagement had been a godsend for the family. At last the settlers, along with the soldiers who guarded them, were forced to leave. The family was still living in a prison—the besieged Gaza Strip. But at least their cage was no longer just their living room. At least they could make dinner in their own kitchen in peace.

But there was one final insult waiting for them after the soldiers left. Chris McGreal of the Guardian reported:

“Last month, after the soldiers hauled off the machine guns and finally drove away, Mr. Bashir ventured up the stairs of his home for the first time in five years. What he found was a relatively small thing compared with the shootings of his sons and the destruction of his orchards, but it left him flummoxed for the first time since the soldiers arrived: placed around the walls were the Bashirs’ cooking pots, each with a pile of human excrement in the bottom.”

* * *

We were among the first guests welcomed into their home after those five years of unremitting torment, and they welcomed us as if we were not just family, but royalty — as if all of their hospitality instincts that had been suppressed for the past five years were being released in massive bursts. The warmth of the welcome was absolutely overwhelming.

Yousef’s mother Suad cooked an entire elaborate dinner just for us that evening. They’d bought a huge pile of fresh fish and prepared and cooked it for us in a process of spicing and slicing and stuffing it with coriander, chili, cumin, cilantro, and garlic, and slow-cooking over a fire that took all day.

Gaza was historically famous for its fish dishes, often eaten on the beach where families gathered to smoke nargila, drink tea, and watch children fly kites. Since most of Gaza’s population were refugees, they had brought recipes and traditions from every corner of historic Palestine.

Still, “a specifically Gazan cuisine does persist, distinct from other Palestinian or Levantine cuisines in its generous use of hot peppers, cumin, and dill, and sour fruits like pomegranate, tamarind and plums. It relies heavily on fish and on poor-man’s ingredients like mustard greens and garbanzos. Many of the most classic dishes are stews cooked slowly in clay pots, unique in the region. Because of Gaza’s isolation, many of these recipes are completely unknown outside of the Strip.”

But fish was now a rare treat because it was so expensive due to Israel’s restrictions on Gaza’s fisherman.

After dinner, one of Mr. Bashir’s daughters showed us around the grounds of their home which used to be lush orchards and gardens and was now was a wasteland covered with spent bullet casings. In one room, she had arranged several casings into a message that said, “PEACE.”

The Bashirs' house

The Bashirs' message

The next day, Mr. Bashir took us on a driving tour of the entire Gaza Strip, including the last remaining date groves in Deir al Balah, the defunct Gaza Airport near Rafah, and a friendly church in Gaza City.

For dinner they slaughtered three rabbits and cooked another fancy meal, which made John and me uncomfortable. We wanted to share some of the cost of these elaborate meals, or eat something simpler, or at least help pay for gas for the car Mr. Bashir had used during his entire holiday to show us around the Gaza Strip. But their hospitality was absolute.

At night, we chatted over tea with the friendly family and watched the sun go down in the balmy Gaza sky. Mr. Bashir told us about how he had used the time he was imprisoned in his living room to study for a degree in English literature. In addition to Yousef having the honor of studying in the top-ranked Palestinian high school in Ramallah, three of his children studied in universities Germany, two studying medicine and one engineering. It was an incredible testament to their strength of character and commitment to education to excel in this way despite such overwhelmingly horrific circumstances.

Later, when I was watching Israel bombard the Gaza Strip in January of 2009, I would think back on how achingly fragile this house was, sitting all alone on its desolate lot full of spent bullet casings next to a destroyed settlement. How hard they had worked and how much they had suffered to preserve it. And how quickly and easily one Israeli missile could end it all — the home and the family, too.

Sunset in Gaza

The next morning, it was time to head back to Ramallah. John asked to be taken to a fish market to buy some fresh fish to take back as a treat for his aunt in Ramallah. To his horror, Mr. Bashir insisted not only on paying for it, but also on getting far more fish than the small amount John asked for. He was also adamant that he would personally drive us, our luggage, and our bag of fish (which he packed in ice for us) to the Erez crossing.

We were desperate to get to the nightmarish Erez checkpoint, get it over with, and get back to Ramallah for a chance to relax a bit before full-time work started again the next day. Plus the ice around the fish was rapidly melting, and we didn’t know how long the crossing would take. So we gratefully accepted the offer.

After saying fond and grateful good-byes, we were stuck in the Erez terminal for three hours, with its rat-trap electronic metal gates and cages and revolving metal doors controlled by unseen teenagers, with thousands of screaming infants and their post-holiday stressed parents and wheelchair-bound grandparents squashing up against us and Hebrew-accented Arabic screeching at us from mounted loudspeakers turned up so loud they were incoherent, trying to navigate it all while sweating profusely and juggling our luggage and our melting fish.

The calmness of the people around us was at least as infuriating as the situation itself. The look in John’s eye was manic, bleak, dangerous. It mirrored my own.

He said from the farthest reaches of disbelief, “How are these people so calm? How do they keep going through this, day after day?”

I shook my head, then I had a darkly inappropriate thought that twisted the corner of my mouth. “I guess after all the normal people blow themselves up, all that’s left are the Zen masters.”


To learn more about Fast Times in Palestine, visit the book’s website or Amazon page.

You can also check out the book’s Table of Contents with links to more excerpts.