The Old Gaza Boy and the Sea

I grew up by the Gaza sea. Through my childhood, I could never quite comprehend how such a giant 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.”

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons (Clarity Press). Baroud is a Non-resident Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Islam and Global Affairs, Istanbul Zaim University (IZU). Read other articles by Ramzy, or visit Ramzy's website.

9 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. jon s said on June 8th, 2010 at 11:49am #

    See Bernard-Henri Levy, in today’s Haaretz:

    http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/news/it-s-time-to-stop-demonizing-
    israel-1.294833

  2. jon s said on June 8th, 2010 at 11:54am #

    I see that the direct link is not working. Anyone interested has to go to the Haaretz website/Jewish World/ Opinion

  3. mary said on June 8th, 2010 at 12:58pm #

    That was the wrong link – substitute

    http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/stop-avoiding-the-investigation-1.294828

  4. mary said on June 8th, 2010 at 1:07pm #

    Or alternatively write to the totally useless Secretary General of the UN. The testimonies will probably interest the likes of Jon S. I find them too harrowing.

    CONTACT
    UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon
    The United Nations, New York NY 10017
    tel: +1 212 963 5012
    fax: +1 212 963 2155
    email: gro.nunull@gs

    For three days as they were held in captivity last week and unable to speak on their own behalf, Israel presented the massacre against civilian
    passengers on the Mavi Marmara as self-defense against a “lynching.” Now that the passengers are returning to their home nations, the global
    community is hearing a much different story, not just regarding the May 31st attack but also new allegations of brutality in the treatment of
    several passengers afterwards once they were in custody inside Israel…

    As the passenger accounts trickle in, survivors portray the Israeli military as using excessive and disproportionate force against activists
    not just on the Mavi Marmara but the other passenger ships as well. Use of tasers, electric shocks, rubber bullets and live ammunition (both on board
    and from the helicopter hovering above) are documented…

    In her testimony, Annette Groth. a German Parliamentarian who was a passenger on Mavi Marmawa validates that assertion saying “The scandal is that we have to fight the Israeli images only with words. The Israelis confiscated all the activists’ cameras, computers, and mobile phones.”

    These accounts reveal an alternative narrative of the attack on the Freedom Flotilla that cannot be reconciled with the Israeli version.

    CONTACT Secretary General Ban Ki Moon today and DEMAND an independent investigation!

  5. lichen said on June 8th, 2010 at 4:01pm #

    This article was beautiful–israel has absolutely no right to even enter the Gazan sea, attempt to block off it’s ports, or occupy it’s beaches–the dignity, the dreams and peace of mind of the Palestinian people needs to not be disrespected by such disgusting scum anymore.

  6. jon s said on June 8th, 2010 at 10:03pm #

    Mary, I certainly agree with the need for an investigation, as long as it’s fair and investigates all aspects.
    I note that no-one here has actually addressed any of the points made in my comments, or , more eloquently, by Bernard-Henri Levy.

  7. hayate said on June 8th, 2010 at 10:53pm #

    (cough)

  8. mary said on June 9th, 2010 at 8:33am #

    My brother’s note to Ramzy today

    Well done Ramzi (sic). One day ships will come without hindrance to your family and to all our sisters and brothers in Palestine from over that western horizon. That is to a new port in Gaza, being built and then bombed in 2000, and to the Palestinian ports of Haifa and Ashdod. As you know, the latter goes back past biblical times. And the children will swim like fish as their fathers prepare for a night’s fishing with nothing but the sound of the breeze.

    This little piece from http://dhalpin.infoaction.org.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=53&Itemid=2
    ‘Water for Gaza’s 1.5 million People’.

    ” A brief history. Settlements were recorded here in Gaza in 3000 BC. One writer said it was rich with trees. This stop on the Via Maris was a good one for a very good reason no doubt – there was sweet water in the wells and in the river to the south. It was truly an oasis. Dr Eyad Sarraj told me that as a boy just after WW2 he remembers running down to the beach with birds in the trees and fish to see in sparkling sea.”

    I know we will all ‘never give up’.

  9. mary said on June 22nd, 2010 at 11:56pm #

    Former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone hosts an exciting discussion on Ramzy Baroud’s book: My Father Was a Freedom Fighter: Gaza’s Untold Story with authors Dr. Ghada Karmi and Ben White. Watch: Part I, Part II, Part III

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XJl-lj9Lc4s (Part I)