From the balcony of my hotel room this morning, I hear the thundering march of an army in the vicinity. They take a while to appear, but when they do, we see a orderly batallion all dressed in black chanting slogans as they file by. Few locals stop to look-it seems this militarism is well ingrained in the routine here. I use my vantage point this morning to steal a final glance at the ocean and at the beautiful but desolate cottage and its accompanying garden next door to me.
Word reaches us that we will now only be leaving at 1pm, but that we should board the buses with our luggage by 10am. Luggage is hauled down the stairs and out of the elevator and soon the lobby is dotted with bundles of bags. Many use the opportunity to gather as many contact details of the new friends we’ve made in Gaza. As we have learnt during our stay, Facebook is the most popular medium for young people here and our networking with our Gazan guides is made much simpler by just having to ‘add a new friend’ on fb. Some colleagues have last minute shopping errands to complete. Others are informally initiating fellow members to contribute some cash to be given as a farewell gift to the most hospitable staff here at the Gaza International Hotel who despite the siege have managed to deliver a five star hospitality experience to us.
Sheikh Shamiel Panday of Port Elizabeth takes the bold step of trying to off-load some of the inexplicable emotions many of us have amassed at this juncture. In his authoritative voice he addresses all our hosts-from the guides of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the security personnel and hotel staff-and thanks them most sincerely and profusely. He goes on to describe the last few days we’ve spent here as the best in our lives and even goes to the extent of elavating them to a higher degree than the day he got married. There are a few giggles from the audience, but certainly no loud cries of disbelief. This is because today we all speak with one voice. Our experiences here in Gaza have affirmed that the Convoy is indeed a ‘family brought together by Divine Decree’ and today our hearts are moulded together with the emotions of sadness and admiration for these great people. Hence, there is also no hesitation whatsoever in responding in the affirmative when Sheikh Shamiel prays that we return to this Blessed Land over and over.
There are numerous warm hugs and embraces from our Gazan bretheren that we hope could have lasted a lifetime. We try to snap up a potrait of the entire crew together in its glory and moments later our luggage is loaded and the bus is raring to go. Technically, we still have a few hours left in the Gaza and I can only pour out my heart in gratitude when even at this stage, our guides don’t want our time to be whiled away unfruitfully. It may be our last day in Gaza, but for students across this territory, it is the first day of the new school calendar.
We are given the choice of visiting an all-boys or all-girls school in Gaza and the occupants of the bus seems to prefer the latter. I suppose, for most of us, boys do not immediately conjure up the image of diligence and dedication, the one we’d all eagerly would like to capture at the school. The preference is noted and soon we stumble off our bus like clumsy second graders towards the Madressa Bashir Al Raees Ath Thanawiyya, an all girls institution in the heart of the city that is described as the best school of its kind in Gaza. As I disembark, I manage to capture a picture of something that has eluded me thus far-the poster exhorting Gazans to contribute towards the victims of the famine in Somalia! The story of this picture and what it tells us about the calibre of the inhabitants of Gaza, I believe, is definately worth more than a thousand words.
The school is teeming with activity. It seems to be break time and girls can be heard chatting noisily in the courtyard. All the students are neatly dressed in long deep blue uniforms and pure white scarves. The principal kindly offers to give us a guided tour. As a start, she seats us down in a classroom and delivers her lesson on the state of education in Gaza. With education being the lifeblood of this countries people, it is no wonder that she is perturbed by the ageing chalkboards and classrooms that are forced to play host to 50 or more students at a time. All her words are meticulously translated by our two guides for this particular trip, Bayan and Maysam. I am embarrased to say that our class is a bit rowdy today and they struggle to keep complete silence. In addition to our questions to her, she too has her own questions for us on the purpose of our visit, which are uncharacteristically more incisive than other encounters.
Despite the littany of problems caused by the siege, true to the Gazan spirit, all the school facilites are clean and very well maintained-just like the hospitals, universities, beaches and almost everything else in Gaza. The girls at the school are just like students anywhere else on the planet. Classlists for the new year have been put up on the doors for them and I see clusters of them curiously poring through the lists and blabbering about them.
We are shown the schools computer centre and then its rather tiny library. There are profound sayings in Arabic and English imprinted on walls and charts all over the school premises. One notalble liner on the wall of the library, when translated, reads ‘A house without books is like a body without a soul’
The condition of this school is comaparable to any well kept government school in South Africa. The difference is that Madressa Bashir Al Raees Ath Thanawiyya lies at the top of the academic ladder in Gaza. Conditions in most other schools are far worse. Unfortunately, there isn’t the liberty of time today to visit any more students.
We check up on the progress of the remainder of the group based at the Commodore Hotel. Here it appears that there’s hardly a rush to leave Gaza, and rightfully so. We perform our final Salaahs for the trip at the Mussalla and again I take full liberty of gluing my forehead to this blessed land for the longest possible time in these final moments.
We board the bus again and are pleased to hear that on our way out we’ll take a detour to be shown even more important places. Mahmud is once again wielding the microphone and as we approach the Gaza-Israel border, he takes on an enriched persona. The usually timid and charismatic young man, sensing the few precious moments we have left with each other, unleashes a tsunami of passion, offering fatherly advice to us and narrating lesson-rich anecdotes. He recounts that the Tabi’een when departing from each other and having to confront the fear of separation, used to remind themselves that if they made dua for each other, especially in their abscence, it would be like their hearts never separated in the first place. Upon our shoulders, he stresses, lies the responsibility to convey the “real and truthful” message of conditions in Gaza back to our communities.
Ever closer to the border, we witness a scale of destruction and devastation we have not seen thus far-buildings reduced to skeletons, craters carved out in the early and mangled wrecks of scrap metal. The road ahead grinds to a dead end. Beyond it is a cemetary and then no mans land. We are eager to pay our respects at the cemetary, but are reminded that if we go any further, we may just have our tombstones carved out here as well. Regardless, the enthusiasm doesn’t wane.
This is predominantly an industrial zone and evidently it has taken the heaviest pounding. As Mahmud explains, 60% of Gaza’s indigenous industries have been destroyed.
And yet, lurking amidst these scrapheaps are portents of hope. We are made aware and shown, a recycling system with a difference. In this very vicinity, all rubble from Israeli attacks-both steel and concrete is accumulated. A machine crushes the concrete into small pieces and from there it is further refined to a fine powder. The powder is packaged and dispatched all across Gaza where, I hear with much pleasure, it is the main ingredient in the reconstruction of the country. This ingenuity is particularly valuable since construction materials are barred from entered Gaza under the siege, with the pretext that they would be used for making explosives. For me the whole story is simply one of the most potent signs of rebirth and resilience in Gaza.
Recycling, Gaza Style
I try to digest this good news but simply don’t have the time as Mahmud today is like an unstoppable volcano firing out fascinating anecdotes at an unprecedented pace. This time he gets personal as he reminices on the fateful days of the Israeli assault of 2008/9. He painfully recalls his land reeking with the smell of death and blood everywhere. There were no time for emotions as this dark cloud of uncertainty enveloped Gaza. The assault was brutal and calculated.F-16’s and helicopters patrolled the skies, navy boats fired indiscriminately from the sea and soldiers committed unspeakable horrors on the ground. All that he and other Gazans could do was seek refuge under the covers and beg for the Mercy of Allah.
The first few hours were particularly brutal, with policemen paying the greatest toll. Another of our guides recalls walking in the vicinity of a school just minutes before the terror was unleashed and narrates how he eerily noticed how mobile communications had become unavailable. Everything seemed so calm. The calm before the storm.
Almost 300 policemen were killed in the initial blitz. Over 1400 were killed altogether. Bombs and bullets did not differentiate between leaders, resistance, civilians and children. In fact, it was the weakest that were meted out the worst punishment. Yet, even in this fog of terror, Gazan society mobilised itself. Some took care of the defense of their land and confronting the aggressors, others attended to the injured, and many were made spiritual soldiers who wielded the weapon of Dua. And a potent weapon it was indeed. The anecdotes that Mahmud now narrates to us are simply mindblowing.
With much pleasure and energy he speaks of how when the ill-equipped resistance once we about to meet the superior armed Israeli counterparts, an entire batallion of men in white clothes appeared between the two parties. The Zionists fired repeatedly on these mysterious soldiers, but no amount of firepower ever harmed them. They and the resistance emerged unscathed. Then there was the incident of a figher who was near his wits end when discovering that his explosive device simply refused to detonate even as a mighty Israeli tank approached. Just when it seemed that his fate was sealed, the tank exploded in a fiery spectacle. Taking an oath on Allah, he says that when checking the explosive device thereafter, the fighter found that it still had not detonated. But it still gets better. There is the story of the rat that repeatedly brought nourishing supplies to the Mujahideen who were being severely tested by hunger and a lack of rations. And then there is the anecdote of the huge man that grabbed a group of Mujahideen whose lives were in immediate danger and hid them in another place. No Mujahideen lost their lives; the occupation forces mourned 3. “Ya Sheikh Ebrahim,” Mahmud concludes in his warm style, “we trust that what happened in Badr is happening again. “If you help Allah, Allah will certainly help you,” he says, quoting the Quranic Aayat.
Lunch of another wholesome sandwich is served to us this afternoon on the go as we make the brief journey towards the Rafah border and say farewell to beloved Gaza. Final thank yous and messages are exchanged between our leadership and our Gazan brothers once again on the bus PA system. In thanking the Convoy this time, Mahmud especially singles me out by name. It is an honour that I am totally undeserving of, but one that I wholeheartedly cherish-for I now realise that although I came to Gaza only having 2 sisters, I leave having found myself a brother. The incredible, larger than life personality of Mahmud Abu Shamala. A brotherhood rooted in faith and one that Insha Allah will stand the test of time.
We disembark at the Palestinian side of the Rafah crossing and sit for a few minutes in the cool waiting area of the compound. A television at the centre of the hall is showing a news bulletin and on closer inspection we discover that the broadcast is actually reporting on OUR convoy! Everyone has a good time identifying familiar faces on the screen.
So, the Convoy has made the news and certainly made history too. And several of the local Gazans we’ve become acquainted with during this trip have abandoned their occupations to kindly be here to pay a personal farewell to us for this historic trip. 2 I identify immediately are Dr Ahmed Yousef, the former deputy foreign minister and his daughter Maphaz, who offer heartfelt thanks and prayers. We file out of the building to another awaiting bus, but in the few seconds I have remaining in Gaza I have one important task left to accomplish. There is one question I have for Mahmud that I thought I’d better leave for last. And now comes that tense moment. Mahmud towers over me with a hearty hug and we exchange best wishes. Then I call him to the side and ask: “Mahmud, tell me-what can I do, one special thing that I can make as my unique contribution to the Palestinian cause?” The answer is shocking in its beauty and simplicity: “Ya Sheikh Ebrahim, Make Dua, just make Dua for us and Masjidul Aqsa. When people like you sincerely make dua, Allah will move mountains.”
Our time is up, but the responsibility has been cast in stone. And so too has the lithmus test revealed the impeccable character of Mahmud and the rest of the Palestinian people. A people having utmost faith in Allah and never pleading poverty to the world.
We’d love to cling on, but the palm groves in this these final few square kilometers of Gaza are a blur as the bus soon crosses into Egyptian Rafah officially ending our 6 day retreat in Gaza. It is late afternoon and by the time passports are processed, we are heading back to Cairo under the cover of dusk.
For all the promise and glitter this great nation holds, today it seems to have lost its lustre. After the warmth of Gaza, all else pales away into oblivion. We try our best to keep the spirits high, singing songs and cracking jokes. But something is just not the same. Wait a minute-I think I know what it is..Let me check…Erm, yes, its my heart. I’m sure I just left it behind in Gaza.