During our stay, people invited us into their homes a number of times. For example Akram, a faculty member at IUG and a poet, was kind enough to invite us into his home for dinner on the last evening before half of our group was leaving. It was very nice to meet his wife, his daughter-in-law and his grandson, and to be able to sit around a table and have dinner in company. Another house we were invited into was Mahfouz’, a friend of David’s, who lives right by the seaside with his family. Among other family members we met his 8-year old daughter, who is already a sailor, and who was a great friend of Vittorio Arrigoni. We were able to play with their dog Jackie and admire an old timer from the year of 1938 (!), with a license plate of Gaza from before 1948.
But this post is mainly about our visit to Umm Ahmed, one of the many memorable events during our stay in Gaza. We first met Umm Ahmed during a meeting with family member of detainees in Israeli prisons that was kindly set up by our host university. (You can read here about that memorable meeting.) There she gave me her phone number and invited me to come to her home. This is what we are doing. Stephanie, David, and I got a lift with Ashraf, our driver (courtesy of Hani and Maya), and are now standing in front of Al Quds hospital. (Which leaves time to my ponderings recounted in this previous post.). We were supposed to call upon arriving here, which David has just done, and wait for her son Khalid. After about 5 minutes, Khalid appears. He is Umm Ahmed’s youngest son. Her oldest son, Ahmed, is detained in an Israeli prison. Khalid looks nice. When he arrives, we are not ready to leave yet, as we are still waiting for Antoine and Ayah to join us. They are still in the Gaza Music School, which is only a few minutes away in the Red Crescent ambulance building
We decide to cross the street and sit down outside a café, instead of waiting in front of the hospital. From there we will be able to see Antoine and Ayah when they arrive. We order coffee and chat. Khalid’s English is quite good, especially compared to our Arabic (which consists of about ten vocabulary items, shared among us three). After a while he gets up to go inside the café and comes back right away with a friend of his, who greets us. After a few minutes of chatting, Khalid asks me if I would like to visit the inside of the café (David and Steph are busy talking to someone else). I do, and we go inside. He points to a table full of youngsters, and says they are his friends. Ah, I say, so you come here with your friends. (This may explain his slight initial hesitation when we had first suggested to have a coffee in this place.) I notice many shishas standing in a corner. He doesn’t bring me to the table, but gives me a tour of the cafe. Through the backdoor we emerge into a small, sand covered courtyard that hosts a horse, resting from pulling a very simple cart. The cart lies detached in the corner.
Something I have not yet mentioned is the frequency of seeing horse drawn or donkey drawn carts. Apparently, as fuel supplies were regularly drying up due to the blockade and the unreliability of the tunnel supplies, many Gazans abandoned cars on the road side and bought horses and donkeys instead. Here are a couple that I have managed to capture for a snapshot:
We go back to join David and Steph. David is calling Antoine again. We’ve already called him more than twice, but apparently the meeting with Mr. El-Najjar is too interesting to cut short. Khalid is starting to get antsy, I suppose because his mother is waiting. I imagine they may also be expecting visitors later in the evening, as this is the first (and, I believe, the most important) day of Eid al-Adha. Finally we see Antoine and Ayah come around the corner. As they are walking, Antoine is filming the buildings around the hospital.
Now we can finally go to see Umm Ahmed. Khalid leads us a round a few corners and we walk into a high rise. A small gathering of children watch us curiously. Some smile and say ‘hello’.
After taking the elevator up several floors, Umm Ahmed welcomes us at the door with a warm smile and a big warm hug. We sit down in her living room, and we are offered nuts, coffee, and cake, and other goodies. There is no lack of conversation. David and Khalid have their heads inside Khalid’s laptop. David is entering email addresses and facebook contacts, so that we will be able to remain in contact.
Umm Ahmed shows Steph and me through her apartment, which is lovely. It is clear that she has decorated this apartment with love and dedication to make a real home out of it. We go back to the living room and chat away. At some point another son of hers with his wife and children come in. They proceed to the back of the apartment. Then another son comes in. We have now met three of her sons. On the wall I see a large picture of her son who is in prison, Ahmed.
We ask her if she will tell us her story, how things came to what they are. She shares her story with us. Aya translates for us. It is clear that telling it is emotional for her. Here is Umm Ahmed’s story (to the best of my recollection, and with some help from Ayah):
‘I lived in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) with my husband and my children. After the divorce, my husband had left us, I was a single mother and worked. I stayed in UAE because of my work. At some point I decided that my children should return to Palestine to be close to their other family, and their father (and to be able to continue their studies, as Palestinians cannot study at universities of Gulf countries). However, things were not going so well, their father was not responsible, and they were left alone. My eldest son, Ahmed, kept calling me and telling me to come back to be with my children. I finally returned home to be with them, even if it meant giving up a well-paying job in UAE and coming back to uncertainty. As I came back to Palestine, I found that my eldest son had already become involved in the resistance. In an incident during the second intifada, when he was fleeing from soldiers, he went back to try to free a comrade. While his comrade was able to escape, Ahmad was captured. His comrade was assassinated a couple of years later. Ahmed has served 10 years of a 20 year sentence. I have not been able to visit in six years.’
The reason why she has not been able to see or talk with her son for so many years is provided on this page from ADDAMEER (Arabic for conscience), a Palestinian non-governmental, civil institution working to support Palestinian political prisoners held in Israeli and Palestinian prisons: “On 6 June 2007, citing unspecified security reasons, Israeli authorities suspended the ICRC Family Visits Programme in the Gaza Strip, effectively barring all means of communication between Gazan prisoners and the outside world. The family visits ban was upheld by Israel’s High Court of Justice in December 2009 and compounded by an IPS prohibition of telephone communication between all detainees and their families. The use of phones was not made available to Gazan detainees even after the suspension of the ICRC Family Visits Programme or during Israel’s aerial and ground aggression against Gaza from 27 December 2008 – 18 January 2009. When and if phone contact is allowed, it remains a very rare exception. During Palestinian prisoners’ mass hunger strike in April 2012, one main demand of the prisoners was to reinstate family visits to Gaza prisoners. Though Israel agreed to resume the visits upon the conclusion of the hunger strike, as of 30 August 2012, only around half of the current 445 Gaza detainees had received one family visit, and it remains unclear whether any will receive consistent visits.” See also Samidoun for information, a North American Palestinian prisoner solidarity network.
What impressed us was the strength of Umm Ahmed. Not only did she manage to carry on bearing all the responsibilities of her children, but at the age of 45 she also went back to university to educate herself in order to be able to talk about Ahmad. Now she is determined to learn English, as she wants to be able to communicate the information about Ahmed and other prisoners more widely. A truly admirable woman! (Thanks to Ayah for recalling these facts to my memory. We would not have been able to take away half as much from this visit, hadn’t it been for her help with translating, and with refreshing my memory for writing this.)
After listening to Umm Ahmed’s story, we talk some more, and then take a few pictures. Outside the light is fading, and we know we have to leave. This is our last evening, and we are still expected at Mahfouz’ house. It is hard to tear ourselves away. Umm Ahmed invites us to stay for dinner. But we must decline. We say good bye, but promise each other to meet again soon. For us it is clear that, if things are at all in our power, this will not be our last visit to Gaza. Insh’allah – my Gazan friends would add. This makes the adieu a little easier. But I know Umm Ahmed is a friend whom I will miss.
When we leave Umm Ahmed’s place, night has almost fallen. Now we have another difficult good-bye to make, as it is also the last time, at least for now, that we see Ayah. Although we met her hardly a week ago, it feels like she has become a dear and old friend. She has made each of us a very generous gift: olive oil that is freshly pressed from the couple of olive trees that her family owns. We are immensely touched, and we hope that we are not depriving her family of this precious substance. (Although I have no doubt that we will, as olive oil is not in abundance here.)
Back in Montreal we have already tasted this olive oil, and for me it is the best I have ever had!