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There’s more to Gaza than broken slabs of concrete

By Sami Kishawi

This article was originally published by the Electronic Intifada on 7 July 2011 and is republished on arenaofpeculation.org with permission from the author. You can read more of Sami’s dispatches from Gaza on his blog ‘Sixteen Minutes to Palestine’

A Palestinian boy in Khan Younis refugee camp, Gaza Strip

A Palestinian boy in Khan Younis refugee camp, Gaza Strip (Sami Kishawi)

Many of the people I’ve spoken to in Gaza City don’t object to foreign coverage of the Gaza Strip in the slightest. In fact, Gazans consider that media attention gives them an opportunity to put Palestine in the public eye.

But there is a certain level of resentment towards journalists that only grows whenever these efforts to inform the world fail to go beyond depressing reports on Palestine’s latest political tensions. The people of Gaza are well aware that these efforts fail to depict the full reality of Gaza’s quality of life. This is a failure that journalists must rectify for the sake of honest reporting.

Before being properly introduced to the family members and friends I haven’t met before — my family is originally from Gaza but I have never lived here — my bulky camera normally gives the impression that I’m just another journalist stationed in Gaza to report on the depression that we outsiders assume engulfs the entire territory. “You’re here to see buildings hit by missiles, right?” It’s a trick question. Secretly, yes I am, but that’s not all I want to see. I clarify that I’m not a journalist, that I’m a student visiting home, that the camera is for capturing all kinds of moments in Gaza, not just the heartbreaking ones. “Good,” they say.

An effervescent atmosphere

These brief introductions become extended conversations about what journalists fail to do in Gaza and what they fail to see or acknowledge in the territory’s undeniably effervescent atmosphere. Decades of occupation, years of siege, and intermittent invasions are typically employed as subject headers for most reporting about the Gaza Strip. But despite how these topics represent one very dominating aspect of life in Gaza, they inexcusably ignore the more uplifting aspects of reality including Gaza’s cultural vibrancy, its territory-wide coziness, and its population’s sheer resiliency in resisting the oppression that constantly befalls it.

The main criticism revolves around what appears to be the general protocol for journalistic reporting in the Gaza Strip: find a demolished home, take a photograph, find a shoeless child standing on the debris, take another photograph, send both photographs to a news editor for a report on Gaza’s miserable condition. Of course, the dramatic photographs and subsequent news reports appeal to human emotion, demand attention and increase viewership. But there is much more to Gaza than broken slabs of concrete.

I will admit that I came to Gaza with the very same protocol in mind. As I travelled from the Rafah border crossing towards Gaza City, I adjusted my camera settings to snag quick shots of the dozens of demolished homes and buildings I expected to see along the way. But I was ill-prepared for what was really there. Construction workers removed debris, metal rods were being reshaped, the concrete made into cement. Instead of collapsed homes, I saw new buildings, colorful storefronts and children wearing shoes.

Before anyone gets the wrong idea, it is important to note that most of these developments are really less than two and a half years old. There was a time when debris covered entire city blocks, when missile craters forced automobiles off the road, when Gaza’s skyline disappeared. Even Gaza’s busiest hospitals were turned into piles of cracked concrete following Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s three-week long air and land invasion that began in December 2008. Photographic evidence already exists for that. I wanted my photographs and reports, on the other hand, to look different.

Gaza’s glowing night lights

When was the last time you saw photographs of Gaza’s rooftops and its glowing night lights? When was the last time you read an article on a businessman’s success story in Gaza? Have you ever even heard of the Thai stir-fry with an Arab twist served in the busy al-Rimal district of Gaza City to hungry bystanders? These are the questions I face from Gaza’s city-dwellers on a daily basis and these are the questions that journalists and news agencies should really begin to consider and incorporate in their reportage of life in the Gaza Strip.

A view of Gaza City at dusk. (Sami Kishawi)

Now that I’ve stopped hoping to come across a dramatic and heartbreaking scene to photograph and immortalize in an even more dramatic blog post, my conception of life in the Gaza Strip has flipped upside down since my ride from the Rafah crossing. I have not blinded myself to the poverty, the ailing healthcare system and the weak civil infrastructure, nor am I advocating for journalists to divert their attention to less pressing issues. I continue to note the despair that might underlie Gaza’s atmosphere, the political snobbery that endangers civilian lives, and the effect of a very illegal and unproductive Israeli blockade and I insist that reporters continue to the do the same.

But I have also begun to pay more attention to Gaza’s livelihood, more attention to its unique cuisine — a cuisine we need to see more of in the United States — and less attention to the way Gazans endure the siege and more attention to the way they outsmart it. Call it a perspective change, if you will, but it is not a moot point, at least in the eyes of the Palestinian people.

Recently I travelled to a large refugee camp in Khan Younis, the kind that is often used to represent the current state of the entire Palestinian territories (see “The Palestine Entries: Photos of Gaza’s beautiful children”).

The images of sad, parentless children aimlessly wandering the streets in tattered clothing and the rising unemployment rates of the Gaza Strip, now bordering on 50 percent of the population, seen primarily within these camps, are true realities that deserve to be covered in-depth and with the utmost care and attention. Although one can make the argument that little positive exists within such realities, it too deserves to be covered. However, contemporary coverage regularly fails to depict the wisdom, the gratefulness, the ingenuity and the baraka (translated as blessing) that permeates the makeshift walls of Gaza’s many refugee camps, this one in particular.

The dignity that is often ignored

The residents of this Khan Younis refugee camp master the soil, as I’m sure do the hundreds of thousands of Palestine’s other refugees. Our genetically-modified cucumbers in the US cannot compare to the sweet, bright green ones grown in the back corner of one of the refugee homes. Planted in another wall-less refugee home are six stalks of corn. Apple and fig trees dot the camp. It is highly likely that the individuals tending these plants eat nothing besides what they grow, and although this is in and of itself important to report, it is also worthwhile to commend them for their ability to grow delicate plants in such unforgiving conditions.

Enter their homes and they will offer you their entire storage of clean water, their freshly-made bread, their collection of fruits, all of what little food they might own. Sporting generic soccer jerseys, their children can be found enthusiastically passing soccer balls to each other, not standing idly in the middle of the street as we so often see in newspapers. I offered two children each a shekel, equivalent to about 30 US cents. Both politely said no, thank you, and quickly hid. They are taught to earn, not to be donated to.

A street vendor prepares shawarma at the Friday market in Gaza City. (Sami Kishawi)

This level of karama, of dignity, is severely underreported, which is surprising considering that it’s just as sensational as the devastation we expect to see.

And then there are Thursday nights in Gaza City, the last day of Palestine’s five-day workweek. On Thursday evenings, families by the thousands make their way to various ice cream shops in the heart of the city, order barrad, the territory’s very own lemon-milk slushy, and head to the coast with platters of rice, shish kabobs and baked vegetables or just a small bag of salted watermelon seeds. It has developed into a weekly ritual practiced by the majority of Gazan families regardless of employment, economic, or refugee status.

Illuminated by neon lights, surrounded by beach huts and cooled by the sea breeze, families eat, couples wed and some people even stay the night. It’s probably the only beach in the world where you can find tables and sleeping mats in the sand almost touching the water. But again, this aspect of life is severely underreported.

Take a wider angle, but keep things in perspective

Although Palestine is considered a developing country, its citizens do all that they can to live a “First World” type of life. Tragedy, death and destruction have befallen the entire population of the Gaza Strip. They have been swindled by the tyrannical politics that forcefully rule their lives, but the people of Gaza continue to move on, to outmaneuver and outlast the suffering, and to defy our oftentimes innocent misunderstandings of them and their way of life.

Nevertheless, it is important to keep everything in perspective. Gaza is still facing a siege, the territory is occupied, there is virtually no freedom of movement and although pro-Israel media propagates the misconception that Israel has relinquished all control of the territory following its “disengagement” in 2005, Israel maintains complete and forceful authority over all but one of the Gaza Strip’s boundaries, including its sea and airspace.

Palestinian fishing boats are still targeted by the Israeli navy, humanitarian aid rots at the Erez Crossing, hospitals in Rafah and Khan Younis are severely understocked with medicines and supplies, armed Israeli soldiers train their sights on the Palestinian side of the northern boundaries and dozens of Gazan children wait in Israeli jails without even receiving formal indictments. This too is the reality of Gaza, a reality that must remain in the news to further expose the inhumanity of the occupation.

While the current standard of coverage reports the truth, there is much more truth left unreported. This does not necessitate a shift in the angle of reporting; it requires an expansion of the angle, one that will consistently consider the authentic high-spirited realities that make up a significant portion of Gaza’s quality of life.

Until the headlines stop focusing on just the devastation and systematic oppression perpetuated by the Israeli occupation and start recognizing or at least acknowledging Gaza’s audacity to become what the occupation is designed to prevent it from becoming, the population of the Gaza Strip will continue to harbor feelings of discontent towards foreign journalism and justifiably so.

Horse carriages adorned with bright neon lights take families on rides through the city. (Sami Kishawi)

Sami Kishawi is an undergraduate student at the University of Chicago, where he is heavily involved with student campaigns in support of Palestinian rights. He blogs at Sixteen Minutes to Palestine.

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