Intrepid Louisa Waugh discovers friendship and fascination in the ‘world’s largest open-air prison’, writes David Robinson
Meet Me In Gaza
Louisa B Waugh
The Westbourne Press, £16.99
WHEN it comes to putting herself in harm’s way, Louisa Waugh has form. For her first book, the Ondaatje Prize-winning Hearing Birds Fly, she swapped doucest Portobello for a year in a remote Mongolian village. She followed that with a book about human trafficking, that nastiest of all businesses, and is now back with a book about life in Gaza, that small strip of land south of Israel that is routinely described by visiting journalists as “the world’s largest open-air prison”.
The journalists usually only stay for a couple of days, take pictures of the worst parts of the Gaza Strip – invariably the Jalabaya refugee camp features somewhere, along with some of the more spectacularly shot-up buildings – and then head off to the next trouble-spot on the world news schedule.
Foreigners only ever ask about what is broken in Gazans’ lives, an interpreter friend complains to Waugh. “What about us and our dreams?”
Meet Me In Gaza is an attempt to answer that question. What is life like for ordinary Gazans? Is there any room for happiness and joy in their lives, or do the lingering horrors of war and the endless power cuts, shortages and travel restrictions of peace take too high a toll on their collective psyche?
Waugh’s book takes its title from an instruction her friend Saida gave her when she was leaving to return to Scotland: “Meet me in Gaza, because I cannot come to meet you”. And sure enough, there is a claustrophobia about some of the lives Waugh describes: friends like Saida may have family members living 60 miles away in the West Bank, but visiting them – and being guaranteed re-entry – is all but impossible. Gazan fishermen can cast their nets five miles out from the coast, but go another mile and the Israeli patrol boats will appear out of nowhere and shoot at them to force them back.
For ordinary Gazans, trapped in a country just six miles wide and 25 miles long, the buzzing of the zananas (Israeli drones) in the skies above is yet another daily reminder of the military might that could pulverise their homes at will.
These are the basic unpleasant realities of life under the siege that Israel imposed six years ago when Gazans voted Hamas into power. There are plenty of others: endless power cuts, a collapsing sewerage system, an unemployment rate of 40 per cent, growing political intimidation, and the fact that Gaza will run out of water in two years, having all but drained the local aquifer. Don’t go there, her first Arabic teacher tells Waugh while she is working in the West Bank, but before she takes up the offer of a job in a human rights charity in Gaza City. “It’s a prison filled with broken people.”
Yet, as Waugh discovers, that’s not the whole story. The friendships she forms turn out to be real and lasting. Gazans might not encounter many outsiders (“I have yet to see another Westerner walking the streets here,” she writes with pride) but they seem determined to shower her with kindness. There are plenty of other discoveries. The steam baths in Gaza City, reputedly among the oldest in the Middle East. The transparent pink fur-lined negligees and red-ribboned black bodices on sale in the Souk al-Bastat. Restaurant meals overlooking the Mediterranean at sunset. Acrobats on the beach, jumping for joy. The Old Bedouins remembering the time when Palestine was only 5 per cent Jewish, retired businessmen recalling the 12-hour train journey to Cairo on the long-vanished railway.
All of this pours into Waugh’s notebooks, and to that extent she succeeds in her aim of showing parts of Gaza that foreign correspondents never reach. She clearly loves the place, and yet it’s a curious kind of love, one that can survive despite strangers’ sneers for not wearing a hijab, cafés in the old quarter that refuse to serve women, rumours of kidnappings, a complete absence of bars and cinemas, Hamas roadblocks, and a deep suspicion about mixed parties with dancing and booze.
Waugh’s writing is functional rather than flowery, and occasionally one might quibble about the order in which she arranges her material. She doesn’t offer easy solutions, nor can she, given the fact that the overwhelming bulk of the book is based on a stay in Gaza that ended three years ago.
Yet her job here is to bear witness; the important stories are the ones that unspool into her tape recorder, not her own. From them, we can learn what it feels like to be dispossessed, to live lives that are deliberately made small, that are often very purposefully and directly threatened. “Can you imagine the feeling of knowing you can’t even protect your own children?” one of her interviewees asks her. “It is like being eaten by fear.” And for all her attempts to find joy and happiness in the ordinary lives of Gazans, it’s only right that her reportage reflects this side of their lives too. «