I grew up by the Gaza sea. Throughout my childhood, I could never quite comprehend how such a giant a body of water, which promised such endless freedom, could also border on such a tiny and cramped stretch of land – a land that was perpetually held hostage, even as it remained perpetually defiant.
From a young age, I would embark with my family on the short journey from our refugee camp to the beach. We went on a haggard cart, laboriously pulled by an equally gaunt donkey. The moment our feet touched the warm sand, the deafening screams would commence. Little feet would run faster than Olympic champions and for a few hours all our cares would dissipate. Here there was no occupation, no prison, no refugee status. Everything smelled and tasted of salt and watermelon. My mother would sit atop a torn, checkered blanket to secure it from the wild winds. She would giggle at my father’s frantic calls to his sons, trying to stop them from going too deep into the water.
I would duck my own head underwater, and hear the haunting humming of the sea. Then I’d retreat, stand back and stare at the horizon.
When I was five or six, I believed that immediately behind the horizon there was a country called Australia. People from there were free to go and come as they pleased. There were no soldiers, guns, or snipers. The Australians – for some unknown reason – liked us very much, and would one day visit us. When I revealed my beliefs to my brothers, they were not convinced. But my fantasy grew, as did the list of all the other countries immediately behind the horizon. One of these was America, where people spoke funny. Another was France, where people ate nothing but cheese.
I would scavenge the beach looking for “evidence” of the existing world beyond the horizon. I looked for bottles with strange lettering, cans and dirty plastic washed ashore from faraway ships. My joy would be compounded when the letters were in Arabic. I would struggle to read them myself. I also learned of such countries as Saudi Arabia, Algeria and Morocco. People who lived there were Arabs like us, and Muslims who prayed five times a day. I was dumbfounded. The sea was apparently more mysterious than I’d ever imagined.
Before the first Palestinian uprising of 1987, the Gaza beach was yet to be declared off-limits and converted into a closed military zone. The fishermen were still allowed to fish, although only for a few nautical miles. We were allowed to swim and picnic, although not past 6 pm. Then one day the Israeli army jeeps came whooshing down the paved road that separated the beach from the refugee camp. They demanded immediate evacuation at gunpoint. My parents screamed in panic, herding us back to the camp in only our swimming shorts.
Breaking news on Israeli television declared that the Israeli navy had intercepted Palestinian terrorists on rubber boats making their way towards Israel. All were killed or captured, except for one that might be heading towards the Gaza Sea. Confusion was ominous, especially as I saw images of captured Palestinian men on Israeli television. They were hauling the dead bodies of their Palestinian comrades while being surrounded by armed, triumphant Israeli troops.
I tried to convince my father to go and wait by the beach for the other Palestinians. He smiled pityingly and said nothing. The news later declared the boat was perhaps lost at sea, or had sunk. Still, I wouldn’t lose hope. I begged my mother to prepare her specialty tea with sage, and leave out some toasted bread and cheese. I waited until dawn for the “terrorists” lost at sea to arrive at our refugee camp. If they made it, I wanted them to have something to eat. But they never arrived.
After this incident, boats began showing up on the horizon. They belonged to the Israeli navy. The seemingly hapless Gaza sea was now dangerous and rife with possibilities. Thus, my trips to the beach increased. Even as I grew older, and even during Israeli military curfews, I would climb to the roof of our house, and stare at the horizon. Some boats, somewhere, somehow were heading towards Gaza. The harder life became, the greater my faith grew.
Today, decades later, I stand by some alien sea, far away from home, from Gaza. I have been denied the right to visit Palestine for years. I stand here and I think of all those back home, waiting for the boats to arrive. This time the possibility is real. I follow the news, with the stifling awareness of a grown up, and also with the giddiness and trepidation of my six year old self. I imagine Freedom Flotilla loaded with food, medicine and toys, immediately behind the horizon, getting close to turning the old dream into reality. The dream that all the countries that my brothers thought were fictitious in fact existed, embodied in five ships and 700 peace activists. They represented humanity, they cared for us. I thought of some little kids making a feast of toasted bread, yellow cheese and sage tea, waiting for their saviors.
When breaking news declared that the boats had been attacked just before crossing the Gaza horizon, killing and wounding many activists, the six-year-old in me was crushed. I wept. I lost the power to articulate. No political analysis could suffice. No news reports could explain to all the six-years-olds in Gaza why their heroes were murdered and kidnapped, simply for trying to breach the horizon.
But despite the pain that is now too deep, the lives that were so unfairly taken, the tears that were shed across the world for the Freedom Flotilla, I know now that my fantasy was not a child’s dream. That there were people from Australia, France, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, the US and many other countries, who were coming to us in boats loaded with gifts from those who, for some reason, really liked us.
I cannot wait to get to Gaza, on top of a boat, so I can tell my brothers, “I told you so.”