At a time when the eyes of the world are turned on the battle being raged over Gaza, it seems entirely appropriate to be reading an anthology of stories by writers from the territory. The Book of Gaza brings together the work of ten Palestinian writers who between them represent a range of experiences of life in an enclave no more than 26 miles long and 3 miles wide yet fought over for decades.
Published by Comma Press in the UK earlier this year, The Book of Gaza is an attempt to show that there is another side to life in this region from what is typically seen in media reports. The city of Gaza itself is, says editor Atef Abu Saif in his introduction, like any other coastal city with its coffee shops and inhabitants who relax on the beach., a city where “people love and hate, are filled with desires and wracked with concerns.”
The stories show that these emotions are played out against a background of restricted movement, military control and curfews and where the threat of violence is never far away. The point of some of the stories is a little obtuse at times and I had to read them more than once. There is a brooding aspect to many of them, a foreboding sense of danger with many references to attacks on people living in the refugee camps or to waiting at the borders to cross into neighbouring Egypt or Israel.
But there is also a sense of human resilience. In one story by Zaki al ‘Ela, Abu Jaber Returns to the Woods, for example, a man is given a terrible beating but still refuses to give up the names of people wanted by the army. In A Journey in the Opposite Direction by Atef Abu Saif, there is a chance encounter at the border between four friends from university. One of the men is waiting for his brother to return to Gaza after twenty years. He’s already waited for three days while his brother tried to get through an iron gate at the border amidst thousands of pushing and shoving travellers. The other man has already made the crossing, returning home so that he can see his mother before she dies. As they share a drink at a makeshift cafe, they encounter two girls who are trying to cross the border in the other direction but having similar difficulties. The border crossing is abandoned, the wait for the brother fizzles out and the four ride off back to Gaza under a moonlight sky to the sounds of laughter.
As Saif says the people of Gaza “live on a remorseless stretch of land, in a reality that tries to kill their desire to live, yet they do not tire of loving life as long as there is a way to do so.”