Life in Gaza

Have you ever heard stories about a place you have not visited or a people group you never met? Then, by some unforeseen act of God, everything changed. This is my experience of life in Gaza. It’s been a “Taste of Hospitality” that doesn’t end. The phrase “You are family here” is a never ending life lesson.

A Year In Review

It’s hard to imagine I have actually been in Gaza a year now. Last winter was much colder than this one but I have learned many cold weather tips, necessary, for survival in homes with little or no heat. Even when the temperature only gets down to the 40’s, it’s still like living in a refrigerator when you have no heat. And, heat here is NEVER central heating. All those chubby, healthy looking children I saw when I first came last winter, suddenly became all bones as soon as the weather got warm. Multiple layers of clothing are a big weapon against the cold. Showering in the morning is just NOT a warm idea. Nobody who has tried that wants to take off clothes they already have warmed inside to put on cold ones. A hot water bottle has really helped me warm my clothes and bed. I call it my “husband” because it keeps me warm at night—and makes a great joke among the women here. Sleeping between fuzzy blankets is a great idea since you get about as much cold from the bottom as you do from the top. Hats and scarves in the house are also great to help stay warm. The gloves with the fingertips cut off are another great addition to a cold house along with a hot cup of tea with Marameeah (sage). And they have Pharmacy “Doctors” here for those times when the cold just gets the best of you and tea doesn’t fix it. The pharmacists here give you antibiotics you would need a prescription for in America or Israel.

I have also come to understand the relationship between water and electricity. Without electricity you have no water because water has to be pumped to the tank on the roof so it can flow down. If you get your water from the municipality and, the water and electricity don’t come at the same time, you may have to go to the nearest stainless steel tank in your neighborhood to purchase sweet water (not to be confused with the salty water that comes from the municipality). In some areas it is so salty you can’t even stand to brush your teeth with it. Sure you can buy sweet water pretty cheap but then you have to CARRY it home—many times up many flights of stairs. That can be more limiting than the price of water.

Making coffeeRecipes from home require many new ways of doing things as well as substitutions. Take coffee for instance. My Australian friend, Jean, from my time at Shevet Achim, had a plastic coffee filter that she used for drip coffee. What a great change from instant coffee. And even better is that you can get the coffee ground with the cardamom for that Turkish coffee flavor without the sediment at the bottom. The American coffee commercial that’s says, “Good to the last drop” wouldn’t be good here because you would be drinking the grounds. In America I had a BUNN coffeemaker but here I treasure my 20 shekel filter and pray I can always find paper filters for it. Dairy products are limited in Gaza. I was VERY resistant to using powdered milk because in America it is skim (no fat) and not very tasty. Here it is Full fat milk powder and wonderful to have on the shelf. I have also learned to use the plastic coffee filter to drain water off the Shamainit (a high fat yogurt) and substitute it for Philadelphia Cream Cheese or use it with some Labonneh (salty & sour yogurt) in place of sour cream.

OvenThe food here is outrageously delicious! But the process women use in the meals they make is labor intensive. Most are cooking huge meals for big families on a two burner stove top sitting on their small counter and maybe a metal box like oven—if they are fortunate enough to have more than one balloon (bottle) of gas. There is no temperature gage on the ovens; you just regulate the gas from previous experience. Many cook the rice first and wrap the whole pot in a big thick blanket to keep it warm until the rest of the meal is ready to eat. (Not many homes have microwaves.) There is no ‘chop it all up and throw it in a pot’ even in the limited space and resources. Often I see someone go to the floor (for a lack of counter space) to crush the garlic and hot pepper together with salt and sometimes parsley before adding it to other ingredients. Many of the best dishes are a combination of many steps that often require participation of the entire family. Mealtime is not just something to eat, it is a family experience—especially on Friday. Families usually try to have meat or fish for this special meal (like Sunday Dinner in America) whether they can afford meat the rest of the week or not.

Transportation started out pretty scary for me, to be quite honest. Not because I was in Gaza, I was scared in Amman, Jordan, too. In America we teach our children to never get in a car with a stranger, but taxis are not supposed to feel like that—unless you can’t understand one another—then it really challenges you to trust God with your life. Who knows where the driver will take you and motion for you to get out! This actually happened to me once and I wasn’t where I was trying to go. I am sure it was a “lost in translation incident” but scary, none the less. I searched the neighborhood for someone who could speak English and shortly afterward was driven to my destination (without charge) via an ambulance—unharmed. That day I decided I needed to live within walking distance of the Deaf Society. So for three months I walked and walked, and, got lost again and again, and, learned to get a taxi home when I couldn’t walk anymore. When I moved into the “Penthouse” I was in the neighborhood of two Universities and many of the students in the taxi translated to the driver for me. The rule about “Don’t talk to strangers” is just plain stupid in a foreign country because EVERYONE is a stranger. Even the people who are residents here don’t teach their children that. They go out of their way to speak to you in what little bit of English they know and practically chase you down to shake your hand and make you welcome in their country.

I am finding many things I was taught as a child (and young adult) were for my protection and safety. It may have not been wrong at the time but things have to be re-evaluated as we mature—like the two examples of dealing with strangers. Here’s another one, “Proud to be an American”. How can I take PRIDE in something that I had nothing to do with? Are we PROUD to be a human? I am thankful I have had the privileges of being an American when so many people have so much less, but this has been at God’s hands. I wasn’t the one who decided where I would be born. When we hear ourselves speak through the way other people understand what we say, sometimes it ends up being so arrogant it is shameful.

If I had stayed in America in my own (‘Only WAY to see things’) kind of world, I wouldn’t have even known where Gaza is—much less anything about the people there. If I had come to Israel for a visit and to see the ‘places Jesus walked’ I would have never known the PEOPLE there. If I had never crossed into Jordan and experienced a sense of being able to breathe again, I would have not understood the choking of religiousness in Jerusalem.

It took so much more to get me investigating, thinking, researching and seeking Jesus. I have repented (changed my mind) about so many things on this journey that I can honestly say the woman from America who came to the Middle-East is dead. Forty plus years ago I was baptized (by immersion) “to bury the old man (woman) and rise and walk again in a newness of life”. Funny thing here, when trying to type newness, I typed newmess—it really was a new mess. I wasn’t a new person burying the old one, I was trying to DROWN the old one and I didn’t succeed. You can’t DROWN self-will, self-protection, self. . . . anything. You have to hand it over—one piece at a time—willingly (every time). Only as I let go of what I thought I knew, could I trust enough to hand it over. When a person thinks they know and they think they have found, they quit looking, thinking, researching and investigating.

May we never quit learning to see the world from other’s perspective. We can’t even pray effectively until we can identify with those we pray for and see them through the Love of God—(whose Name is Jesus). Sometimes life has to give us a lot of “fertilizer” before we really begin to grow. I am learning to accept ALL things (sweet and “fertilizer”) as something for my good from a God who loves me.

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NO Zones

In a land where “haram” means “not allowed or ‘inappropriate behavior'” there are many ‘no zones’. So after this short play on words regarding people’s actions and manner of dressing, notice in the pictures how there is no such thing as ZONING in a land recovering from war. Most of the time I am unaware of what has taken place here. I can’t imagine what Gaza must have been like—before missiles, before occupation, before the terror that even haunts many children’s nightmares.

There is evidence of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome in many children in the schools. The Society for the deaf where I volunteer has such a different atmosphere. It is place—a community—where young and adults (hearing and deaf) come together and share life as a family—working and playing together, communicating and sharing their hearts. There IS a school there but more than a school it is a SOCIETY within the society here in Gaza. It seems sheltered from some problems the rest of the school system faces.

For instance, overall there is not enough classroom space so half of the school age children go to school in the morning and the other half in the afternoon. It makes long days for teachers and many mothers have taken on the role of ‘teacher’ at home without the resources afforded most trained teachers. And yet, education is very important and valued by most people in Gaza.

My “Penthouse” apartment is also a very sheltered area. When I asked for my new address, I was told, “There are no street names here. This is war time.” Also—there is no mail delivery. That spurred a whole lot of mind twisting questions that I thought more wise to just “ponder” than to ask. But in my sheltered corner, fresh herbs, roses, organic vegetables like onions, lemons, squash (and more to come as the season progresses) and duck eggs delivered to my door by the owner’s servant/gardener.

The Penthouse. View toward the sea. Arches remain.

It sounds like an easy life and believe me, I am very thankful for this season. I have not forgotten the nights I spent when I first got here (under many heavy blankets trying to stay warm) telling God I had no idea it was going to be THIS hard.

The poor families on the corner who are still picking up the pieces of their lives are a constant reminder of the strength I saw in people when I first met mothers from Gaza in the hospitals in Tel Aviv. I see donkey carts and horse carts coming and going on the same streets with cars of all makes and conditions. I am reminded of the perseverance necessary to continue to find a means to overcome the obstacles of a lack of fuel and electric and often also water. The fuel for cooking is also often scarce, which makes it a major problem for women to feed their families. While in the Aayad household I saw Sumar get up during the night more than once to make bread because the electric was off during the day. (Pita bread is baked one piece at a time in a very hot electric “appliance”.)

A donkey cart in Gaza. A limousine in Gaza.

So long for now. I encourage you to count your blessings and pray for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. I am learning day by day, you can’t believe everything we have been told about the situation here and there are two sides to every story. God has a good plan for ALL people. May we each find our place in that plan.

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Day 3 Of The Invasion

I awoke this morning to the ordinary neighborhood sounds of a Rafah refugee camp—families in loud conversation, chickens clucking and the sound of horse and donkey drawn carts. I am amazed that other than the absence of children playing in the street, this area looks as it did 10 months ago when I first came.

The vibrations and sound of missiles and gunfire from the past two days would only seem like noise if it were not for the news. The new reporters speak of the death and injury tolls as well as the missiles sent and received. On the internet we can get an English version of some of what is happening around us.

This morning our 8 year old birthday boy, Mohammed, and his 9 year old sister, Sarah, sit on our bed trying to play Monopoly—as if they can read English—HA!—as if they can get along this close to each other for 15 minutes (which is even LESS likely) but there is hope. There are two other pre-teen girls and a boy who recently turned 13 in this home. Each of them has seen violence and destruction far beyond what any child should be exposed to. From my favorite English speaking taxi driver (and neighbor), to the children in this home, everyone has been generous with the wisdom their experiences have taught them. The following is a sampling of this wisdom:

  • Stock up on dry goods, sweet water, oil and candles. If you have these things you can survive for a long time. Remember, no electricity = no water.
  • Don’t be in the shower while missiles are flying. You don’t want to have to run when you are wet and naked.
  • Leave the windows open enough that the glass won’t break when the building shakes.
  • Sleep in warm clothes in case someone comes into your house during the night.
  • Sleep in the same room with your Mama.
  • Don’t run to the windows to look out when the noise is loud and close.—ARE YOU CRAZY? That could be dangerous!
  • Stay out of public transportation—just stay home with your family—HERE!

In my hostess’ family, most speak NO English. But it was one of her sisters who gave me my first Arabic dancing lesson. I can’t communicate in words with any of her family, but in actions we love each other—much. Wednesday evening while most of the sounds of war had not yet come to Rafah, this sister found music on her phone and extended her hand in invitation to dance. Did I feel like dancing? No. Did the expression on her face look like she wanted to party? Not at all. But this is the language we communicate in. So we danced. For all we knew it could have been our last dance. But “Thanks be to God” as they say here, we have lived to dance another day.

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The Day The Weather Changed

Part 2 of the Calico Cat.

This week as the weather and season began to change in Gaza, the weather or ‘atmosphere’ changed for the Calico Cat and me, too. She had been comfortable offering her affections to whom she chose but, very afraid of being approached without her invitation. I set the limits of how much I was willing to accept by my response to her.

How long I allowed her inside the flat, how much time I would just sit to pet her and how many more kittens (and future husbands) I wanted my cat to add to the property were limits I set. I based these limits more on what I didn’t want (baddish) than what I did want. I did want to keep her but I didn’t want more kittens.

The property owner had just given Abu Naji (caretaker of the property) the big job of removing the cats from the property—with the exception of my cat. But the Calico Cat had heard the cries of terror from the other cats as they were caged against their will and put in the Tok Tok for a forced ‘relocation program’. In the animal kingdom, as well as among humans, individual panic can quickly lead to mass hysteria and these sounds and images must have left a permanent memory.

The day started out clear following a cleansing and refreshing rain the night before. That morning I ‘invited’ the Calico Cat into the safety of my lap as I sat in the Tok Tok. The purpose of transporting her to the veterinarian was for an injection to prevent unwanted kittens. Yeah, that’s right, birth control for cats because in Gaza they believe surgical neutering is dangerous for the cat’s health. I could sense even my lap (in the Tok Tok) didn’t feel like a safe place for her. After many attempts, I could see she was going to have to be put in the cage.

As we traveled together in the back of the Tok Tok, no amount of soothing words could relax her. She was safe but, she didn’t know it. She was going to return to the home she knew for an entire day of being pampered and cared for, but she didn’t know it. Because of her fear of the unknown and her inability to release control, my Calico Cat escaped from a place of safety and ran like the wind into a place of danger and uncertainty. How many times have I done the same thing?

Facing the unfamiliar is always challenging. It challenges our ability to release control and accept the RISK that life and love will always present. The animal instinct doesn’t know how to trust in God who has control of all things. But as a species of instinct AND reasoning, we are expected to choose. We can choose to fight our rescuer in panic when drowning or give up the battle and cooperate. We can choose to love again after losing so many to death. We can choose to expose ourselves to criticism and rejection until love actually does win. We can choose to let go of the nostalgia of “The Good Old Days” to live again in a new day, a new place, a new way.

I realize it is only because of God’s faithfulness and love that I have not outrun his protection and provision for me. Tonight as missiles “change the weather” of Israel and Gaza, as their sound and impact shake homes and lives, I sit with my family in Rafah knowing it is all between God’s hands and I am safe there.

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The Calico Cat

I was not seeking a pet. In fact, with ten cats on the property, I really didn’t even want one. Feeding, clean-up and the responsibility for their well-being is all part of pet ownership, and, I really didn’t see a need for it in my life.

I have heard some of my friends say they didn’t choose their cat, their cat chose them. Well, this is how this story begins. I was adopted—by the Calico Cat! This young cat literally “stalked” me with love. Someone said, “It’s because you feed her”. I know better than that! I didn’t feed her, at least not for a long time. So it wasn’t anything I did. I really ignored her without being mean. But then we started having “conversation” when I was in the garden.

This cat had VOLUME to her voice and many different tones and head tilts as she “talked” in her cat language. One of the things I am very aware of is body language. Volunteering at the Deaf Society here in Gaza helps me to continue to refine my understanding of what is going on around me by the body language as well as the sign language. I began to understand the “cat language” that asked for permission, that gave thanks, that wanted just be petted, and that was full of fear. And she began to understand, ‘no (la), good cat (Quase Bissa), wait (baddin) as I practiced my small Arabic vocabulary on her and some of my “cat noise” responses. After all, she is a Palestinian cat. She also began to recognize the sound of my footsteps and would she wait and walk with me as I came and went throughout the day.

Bissa usually slept on the awning three floors below my window. One evening when the electric was off, I heard loud screaming cat noises coming from the garden. Because we were having many “suitors” coming to “court” the older female cats, I wasn’t sure which cats were fighting. I went to the balcony and said, “Bissa, is that you?” Of course she didn’t answer but she did respond by running up four floors with a big gray tomcat chasing her. When I made the big cat unwelcome, the Calico Cat that had become MY cat was shaking and continued to look every direction in a very nervous manner. From that point on she slept one floor up from me instead of three floors down. You must understand coming inside had to be under very close supervision because it’s only a cat’s nature to want to attack birds, probably their favorite game—and I have two.

This little Calico Cat worked her way into my heart. Soon it was decided by all of us who live with ten cats (and many visiting cats who were staying here most of the time around the females) that we have TOO MANY CATS and SOON WE WILL GET MORE if we don’t remove them from the property. Baddish, Baddish (don’t want—in Arabic)—we knew what we didn’t want but MY cat was special and I didn’t want her to go.

Every good gift comes from God. To be continued…

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You Are Welcome Here

The people in Gaza roll out a huge “Welcome Mat” from Erez to Rafah and everywhere in between. The folks here are curious, since there are few Internationals in Gaza these days and they are quite helpful. From taxi drivers to the average person on the street or in a ‘Serveece’, if they can speak English or even understand a little, they will walk with you to where you want to go (if it’s close) or explain to a driver in Arabic where to take you.

The Hospitality of Home is like nothing I have ever experienced. I used to refer to it as Arab Hospitality but I am told by people who have traveled to many Arab countries, GAZA Hospitality is different than any other place. “Come to my home for a meal” is a common invitation here regardless of whether they heard you speaking English in the market or you are a friend of a friend.

Lunch is the main meal of the day, commonly served sometime between 2 and 3 PM (give or take a half hour). Here is how the typical visit progresses. Almost immediately one of the ladies of the home brings a beautiful tray of matching glasses filled with a cold drink. It can be a fresh squeezed juice, a homemade juice from fruit in season or a carbonated beverage. Depending on how soon the meal will be served, the next tray will be tea and maybe another tray of seeds, nuts and snacks. When you are an expected guest, it seems these women choose the most labor intensive dish they can make for you, which I will speak about in some future blogs.

In our home, once the food was served, it was everyone for themselves, but not here. The guest is still the center of concern and service. They bring you a personal small plate (in case you are not comfortable with the family style way of eating) and continue to encourage you to eat the chicken or fish by taking the meat off the bones for you. It’s been over 50 years since Mama took the meat off the bones for me. Now that was a ‘flashback’ I can’t begin to describe! After it is not possible to eat any more, one of the ladies of the home brings a towel. It is wet and soapy on one end and dry on the other—for your hands. You guessed it. I wondered if I was going to get my face washed next. I know that sounds like a wisecrack but I have NEVER had my needs and desires anticipated (as an adult) like this and it just boggled my mind.

The fruit can either be brought out as an appetizer before the meal or as a desert after the meal. When you are served the fruit, it’s not a bowl of fruit for everyone to eat from. It is an individual plate for each person, with a variety of fruit and a knife. This plate comes with someone who uses the knife to cut the fruit for you and hand it to you. After a short time when you are ready to leave this 3-5 hour ‘hospitality treat’—you can’t leave until you have coffee—Turkish coffee.

If you accept the overnight invitation, the hospitality can range from your host offering you a new toothbrush, ship ships (plastic house shoes), water beside your sleeping area, a personal candle and lighter, many blankets in cold weather or a fan in hot weather (for use as long as the electric is on). The morning will bring unique surprises of being a most honored guest in any home in which you are privileged to stay. This is the GAZA Way!

Helpful Hints:

  • Go without preconceived ideas of what should be communal and what should be individual—like the water glass.
  • Watch, learn, share and have fun. Just be real. Gazans are real—Real Special People!
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