Nayrouz Qarmout follows her short story for PEN Atlas with a gripping diary piece from the heart of the conflict in Gaza, describing what it's like to look after family, prepare food, and scan the internet for messages as the missiles fall.
Translated from the Arabic by Ghada Mourad and Tyson Patros.
I sleep for only a few hours at a time. I haven’t really been able to sleep since the beginning of the war on Gaza. My eyes hurt; I have a constant headache, never-ending worry. I do not know what the date is, or how many days have passed in this war. Night has merged with day. In the early morning hours I try to think of nothing other than the sound of birds, an antidote to the hum of warplanes and drones, to which my eardrums tremble. My bed and my window shake when missiles fall and crash like earthquakes.
I try to relax in the hope of getting some sleep. My white cat, with her fluffy fur, sneaks onto my bed. She moves her whiskers on my face and bites my feet to woo me into giving her some food. I feed her despite my drowsiness. With every powerful hit of a missile the cat races, terrified, to shield herself beneath a table or chair – it’s her survival instinct. Even my cat is trying to preserve her life during the war. I know the location of the missile strikes by observing which direction she runs away from danger.
I have a beautiful canary, but he no longer chirps like the rest of the birds. He too is afraid of the sound of explosions. I try to talk to him, and sing for him, until he pecks at my fingers. Then I know that he has returned to life.
I decide to take a few hours sleep in the morning, given that I didn’t sleep at night. But every time I hear a powerful strike I unconsciously take my iPhone from the side of my bed and begin to browse and read the news, commentaries, and people’s reactions to what’s happening in Gaza. I make sure that my friends and relatives who are on Facebook are okay. I read the articles that discuss the war on Gaza and share the links, but I don’t understand my mixed feelings. In every moment of fear, I look to the daylight and I feel reassurance engulfing me. I don’t know, perhaps it’s faith in life.
Amid the warplanes and the navy ships and the tank shells, Israel imposes a curfew without announcing it directly to residents. I remain at home, fearing the danger of moving in the streets or leaving the house. I feel like I’m in a tiny prison, like those held in the prisons of the occupation. I try to have a nice and meaningful day. I love to walk, and so I walk for long hours inside the house. I count the tiles on the floor. I recount the tiles on the floor. I organise my thoughts. I envision my world. I think about what’s happening. Sometimes an idea of what to write occurs to me while walking. I walk until I reach a window and I stand beside it. I look out onto the street, to the sea, and to the colours of the sky near the sea. I take a deep breath and feel relieved that I still sense the beauty of the image.
My brother’s daughter – the brother who married recently – is only four months old. I play with her a lot. She is very beautiful. Her eyes are bright. She has a huge smile wide enough for the world. Two days ago she realised that she can take hold of the things around her. She grabbed my hand and it made me rejoice. But when somewhere nearby was bombed, she clenched my hand firmly, and as soon as the sound of the strike ended her smile returned. I feared for her. I hugged her for a long time. She is truly an amazing child that knows no fear.
The electricity regularly cuts out. We try to compensate with electric generators and UBS batteries, and thanks to them we are able to operate many of the appliances. I turn on the television to see the live broadcast of events in Gaza, the opinions of political analysts and the international perspectives about what’s going on. I feel bored. A lot of repetitive talk. As soon as I see the images of massacres and blood in Gaza I feel sad, I weep, but I quickly regain my composure and turn off the television.
I turn on the radio to listen to the local stations. Their correspondents broadcast from the field and announce the names of the martyrs and the wounded. They play uplifting revolutionary songs. I talk to my father, who has a deep knowledge of Palestine’s history, and we try to predict what might happen.
My mother is also very keen to discuss the situation in Gaza. She shares her conclusive opinions about what’s happening on social media using her iPad. In this month, the month of Ramadan, we’re accustomed to preparing so many delicious dishes and meals. As soon as my mother feels in danger she prepares the most wonderful food with hints of rare spices. She has mastered cooking the food of Damascus; she was born there. She craves a cigarette after fasting, even though she stopped smoking years ago. But she began smoking again with the onset of the war. She laughs and says that our life is going up in smoke ‘so let me enjoy my cigarette!’ She recounts for us the circumstances that the Palestinian people have faced and the struggle she and my father have gone through. They joined the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. She said ‘we were young then, and we could resist with all our energy’. I help her. I joke with her. I provoke her a bit, because I love her anger.
Our housekeeper cannot come to work. His house is far away and the road is dangerous. He also has a small family to look after. My sister and I take it upon ourselves to clean the house and arrange the belongings. I love to clean the floor and see it shine. In this act, I think that everything becomes clearer in my mind. Every day I take great pleasure in wiping clean the dust of the bombing and destruction that engulfs the house and its furniture. We leave the windows open to avoid a build up of air pressure in case of bombing. And I cannot turn on the air conditioner or the fans as they require the windows to be closed and need electricity. The summer is very hot here. You don’t find a lot of plants and trees in Gaza. The occupation has uprooted most of our trees, which increases the heat, and increases the humidity of the air because Gaza is on the coast.
I love to polish cups and glasses. I search for tranquillity and calmness within me. I reorganise the cups in the cupboard. I watch satirical Ramadan television programmes on Arabic channels with my brothers. They steal us away from the stifling atmosphere of war, which lays siege to our movements, dreams and aspirations.
My brother loves to smoke nargilah and play guitar. I love the embers of the charcoal when they burn, the pull of the water pipe and the scent of fruit that flavours the tobacco – even if it is harmful for your health. I love listening to music. When people smoke nargilah the conversation and joking intensify. We become sad when we remember my uncle who was martyred by a direct hit of an Israeli missile years earlier. It was my uncle who taught us how to prepare the head of the nargilah and fill it with tobacco. My uncle was so happy when we returned to Gaza from abroad after the Oslo Accords. He pulled me out of the car window to kiss me, all those years ago. He hadn’t seen my father for more than twenty years as he had been forcibly exiled from his country. We discuss what’s happening as if we are young again. We have points of view which we try to analyse and connect to reality. We drink coffee to help us stay awake and alert if danger arises. The smell of coffee is amazing. It is lovely.
I love to prepare desserts. We prepare a special dessert during Ramadan – Qatayef. It’s a pancake that we glaze with butter, then fill with cream, sprinkle with grated pistachios, and soak in honey and rose water. We feel distressed and pray even more for people who have no food; they already lost everything. And yet I don’t want us to lose the beauty of this month despite the harshness of the circumstances. We have to live.
I shower a lot because of the severity of the heat. I love water and the lather of soap. Even though we filter the water several times with specialised equipment to be able to use it, it’s still polluted. Israel stole our water. I think of those who were displaced from their homes and not even permitted to bathe. They have no water. They have no beds to sleep in. We try to donate through aid that is collected by every single neighbourhood; clothes, food, money and many other necessities. But I know that they are not at peace as they lost their homes and their stability. I thank God that we still have our home. But there is an ache in my chest for those expelled from their homes.
I write and I write. I write my diaries, or a political article, or a prose poem, or a short story. I burst with anger at what’s happening. My people deserve nothing but life. I observe the various cities throughout the world that are in solidarity with us. I feel reassured that true humanity has not dissipated. Many friends, here and abroad, contact us to check on us. They raise our morale. They ask, ‘how are you all doing?’ We always say that we are doing well. But the reality is that Gaza is not well. We are trying to persevere until the end.
I try to sleep again, but I am very alert. Any movement wakes me. My brother sneaks into my room quietly and takes my computer charger. He wants to exploit the electricity before it cuts out again. His movement wakes me even though he walks with extreme caution. I laugh. I try to go back to sleep.
One night among these nights of war, my family and I felt that the air was suffocating us. People said that toxic gases had been released into the air. We must be wary of them, shut the windows and drape soaked cloths over our noses. We were confused and didn’t know whether to open the windows for fear of bombing or to shut them for fear of poisonous gases. We were not able to sleep. Laughter pervaded the house. My brother and sister and I don’t know why we laugh. We figured that maybe it was laughing gas. It is the irony of the situation in which we live.
On another night, the Israeli Occupation Forces launched a missile to warn us of a more intense bombing that would be arriving shortly. We deferred our sleep until the strike, and gathered in the middle of the house searching for safety. We do not have any safe shelters. The bombing was delayed. Where is the warplane? Bomb us and finish your disgraceful work, we want to sleep!
Israel drops flyers from the sky, advising that we vacate our homes, warning that they will invade some of our territories. I scoff at these flyers. I prefer death over serious injury or another exodus. I do not want to be displaced. I shall die in my home. Yet I swear that I love life.