October 27, 2006
By Gideon Levy
We can start with the bathroom, although this is an article about a holiday. The bathroom has no door; there may be no clearer sign of wretchedness. Without a door, without privacy, in a house where 13 people live. Now there is no water in the bathroom, either. There has been almost no water in the faucets since Israel bombed Gaza’s only power station in late June, and there is no money to buy a water tank for the roof, and that’s why they fill family-sized plastic bottles, pots and basins when there is water in the faucet – only for a few hours a day – and afterward they rinse the toilet bowl with it. Meanwhile the smell spreads all over the house. It’s the eve of the major Muslim festival of Id al-Fitr, which fell earlier this week, and the stench covers any attempt to lend even a drop of festivity to this holiday.
We can start with the menu for the holiday meal, although there isn’t much to write: two salted fish, costing NIS 10, the main course of the festive meal for 13 hungry people, a gift from the children’s grandmother. There are also some side dishes of tomatoes and fried onions. Maybe at the last moment, they’ll get a donation of a few shekels and buy hummus too. And what to drink? “Juice, juice,” call out the children in a chorus, and the mother wrings her hands. Maybe she will actually buy some sweetened juice for a penny, to sweeten their holiday.
An hour and a half from Tel Aviv, the home of the Rezal family in the Daraj neighborhood in the center of Gaza City. The rented apartment is on the second floor of a two-story house. Those who sat down to the “holiday table” this week included the father, Nizar, 48; the mother, Amani, 36; and the children: Shadi, 20; Hind, 19; Shireen, 18; Amuna, 17; Mohammed, 16; Tamer, 15; Wasim, 14 and Hadal, 8. They were joined by Shadi’s wife and their two toddlers, who also live in a room in the apartment. Thirteen people looking for food.
A kilo of candies for NIS 14. It’s joyful in the city marketplace on the eve of the holiday: The loudspeakers are deafening, competing with one another in belting out the music, as at a colorful fair. But there are no buyers.
Between Gaza and Rafah, we quickly pass various trouble sites. One cannot traverse Khan Yunis without holding one’s nose to block the terrible stench arising from piles of garbage and the black sewage water that has begun to flow in the city center. Next to the Boureij refugee camp, armed men from Fatah and Hamas exchange fire, and the street is full of the sooty tires of demonstrators who have not received their salaries for over half a year, because of the international boycott. In Rafah, they seem to be waiting for the Israeli occupation that is expected to return any day. At the Beit Hanun junction the ruined car repair shop joins last week’s ruined restaurant.
Every week one sees new pictures of destruction that Israeli bulldozers cause nightly. Almost nobody notices them. The Erez industrial zone was also destroyed last week, its ruins joining other memorials to regional peace and cooperation.
The sewage water flowing in the center of the quiet street in the Daraj neighborhood in Gaza is actually white. Soapy water. Nobody is sure what the street is called, but in the end they agreed on Jarjawi Street, after the nearby restaurant. We ascend to the second floor, home of the Rezal family. We sit in the living room. Sit? Barely. The sofas are torn, bits of the plywood frames protruding from them; it’s painful to sit. The family received these sofas three years ago as a gift from relatives who were about to replace their old living room set. The sofas were already in tatters, and since then their condition has deteriorated even further.
The table in the center of the living room is covered with plastic. Table? Not exactly. A stool that serves as a table, planks of wood on shaky legs. Torn curtains hide the partially shattered windows and shade the balcony as well. The apartment is spacious and shockingly empty, roofed with asbestos and tin. It’s early afternoon, and in one of the rooms son Mohammed is sleeping on the floor. What else can he do? The doors of the room are broken and disintegrating, their handles hanging.
The walls are filthy. The family moved here nine years ago, after the grandmother’s apartment became too small – one room for all of them. Rent is 100 dinars, NIS 620, but who pays? And who is able to pay? Up until seven months ago, Amani was still able to pay NIS 400 on the ninth of every month. Now that is over too. For seven months she hasn’t paid a thing.
For eight years, the father of the family has been unemployed. Unemployed and ill: Here is the crumbling 2005 medical certificate from the Palestinian Authority, testifying to the fact that its bearer is ill with rheumatism. Prior to that, Nizar worked as a guard in a building that was being constructed in the area, until he was dismissed.
In recent weeks, they had visits from the two sons of the landlord, members of the Sabara family, who are threatening to evict them. The last time they came was about two weeks ago, at the height of Ramadan. Amani didn’t open the door to them. They shouted from outside that they would come back and throw out the household items. The family hasn’t paid for electricity for a year, and yet the current hasn’t been turned off – when there is a current in Gaza, that is. The crying of the children in the house intensifies.
The clock in the living room has stopped working. The television is wrapped in rags, and it doesn’t work either. It broke three months ago and there is no money to fix it. This wreck of a television they received as a gift from neighbors who were planning to throw it out. The old radio-tape recorder on the television emits a hoarse sound, but the tape recorder hasn’t been working for a long time. The cheap set of dishes on the chest of drawers is still wrapped in cellophane. There is no reason to open it and nobody to open it for.
From 2001 until seven months ago, Amani still worked cleaning houses, as a maid in the homes of the wealthy – near the villa of PA chair Abu Mazen in Gaza City. She worked two days a week, NIS 25 per day. That’s over too. Amani says that after she suffered a miscarriage during the course of her work, she did not go back to cleaning.
During the past years she has gradually sold off the gold jewelry from her dowry. Here a bracelet and there a necklace; recently she also sold the girls’ earrings. They took their son Mohammed out of school about four years ago, when he was 13, and sent him to work. He finds incidental jobs as a porter in the marketplace; sometimes, on a good day, he brings home NIS 20. During the summer vacation the family income skyrockets: Amani buys Chinese lighters and gives them to Wasim and Tamer to sell on the streets. Sometimes they bring home NIS 10.
The eldest, Shadi, is also no longer employed. He worked as a tailor in the sewing plant of the Kahlot family, which sold its products to Israel. But since the Karni checkpoint is closed most days, Shadi was sent home to rest. A year at home. Sometimes he goes to the marketplace and looks for incidental jobs in exchange for a pack of cigarettes. The aunts and uncles help the family out occasionally with a few shekels. How much does the family spend per month? Amani has no idea: “If I have 10 shekels, I spend them.”
Decoration in this home consists of plastic flowers. Two weeks ago a cat arrived. During one of the frequent electricity blackouts, when the city was in darkness, the cat entered the house, and since then he has been with them. Wasim gets him chicken heads from one of the slaughterhouses, and occasionally the cat also hunts mice. When Amani mentions the mice, her shame is evident. The family cat, which is now sprawled silently in a corner, has no name.
Yesterday they ate spinach at the meal that broke the fast. There is a little left for today. Two days ago they ate fried eggplant and tomatoes. Last Friday they ate frozen meat. For the holiday meal Amani got the two salted fish from her mother. She brings them to show us. Wrapped in newspaper and stinking. Tomorrow they will be fried and served on the holiday table. She didn’t buy clothes for the holiday for a single child.
“I fought with my husband because he’s a deadbeat, and I didn’t buy anything for the children. I begged him to bring some money. Let him work, let him borrow, so we can buy some clothing for the holiday at least for the little ones. So they’ll feel like the neighbors’ children. So they’ll get some enjoyment. I told him not to come home until he brings some money.”
A few days ago Nizar met our taxi driver, Saad, and begged him to try to find work for him, at least for one day. He also asked Saad if Israeli Arabs came to the Gaza Strip this year, as in the distant past, and distributed donations for the poor for the holiday. It’s hard to explain to him that Israel cruelly prevents even that.
On the eve of the holiday, Amani found out that a Hamas charitable institution on Saladin Street was giving out clothing for needy children. She hurried there, but by the time she arrived, nothing was left. Another charitable institution, also run by Hamas, sent a representative to the house; then they were entitled to a food package for the holiday: a can of tomato sauce, a jar of tehina, a kilo of salt, a kilo of macaroni, a kilo of hummus and a kilo of ful (broad beans). Everything is already finished.
Amani wanted to tell her mother that the two fish she sent would not be enough for the holiday meal for everyone, but she felt uncomfortable asking for more. Her elderly mother spent NIS 10 on the fish for her daughter’s family. There won’t be candies at the holiday meal either. It’s out of the question.
The cupboard and the two beds in the parents’ room are also castoffs they received as gifts. The girls sleep in their room and the boys on the living room floor. Shadi, his wife and two babies in one room, the nicest room in the house, with loads of plastic flowers, posters in many colors and colorful pillows, a sea of color and a baby sleeping quietly in the iron cradle in the corner of the room.
In the kitchen, the floor and walls are black with dirt. The Amcor XL refrigerator is old and rusty, though filled to the brim with tomatoes. The remains of yesterday’s spinach sit in a filthy tin pot. There are also scattered sprigs of parsley and a few cucumbers.
The bathroom looks even worse. A small faucet that comes out of the wall at waist height is supposed to serve for washing; it’s not clear how. In any case, there’s no water now. The floor is wet, perhaps from water, perhaps from some other liquid.
Most of the water bottles and the pots and basins on the floor are already empty. There has been no water since yesterday morning. Because there is no door, everything is wide open. The washing machine broke down a long time ago, so they wash the clothes on the bathroom floor. Usually the children go to sleep at 9 P.M., and the parents at 10. Until then they sit in the living room, in front of the television that no longer works. There is no desk, of course, and the children do their homework on the floor. One of them now approaches the taxi driver and quietly asks him if he can help him buy shoes for the holiday. Happy holiday to the Rezal family.