It was a coincidence that I began reading Atef Abu Saif’s The Drone Eats with Me: A Diary of Gaza at the same time as I was reading Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear. They aren’t especially similar books—Greene’s is a psychological spy thriller that takes place in England during the Blitz, one of his “entertainments”; Abu Saif’s is a lacerating journal of daily life during Israel’s latest pummeling of the Gaza Strip. But both are set during wartime in cities under aerial bombardment. Both are shot through with a sense of paradoxical, almost ironic, quotidian dread. There is something heartbreaking about the banality of getting on when the bombs are falling.
In a review of The Book of Gaza, a short story collection which Abu Saif edited and contributed to, I noted that although the stories “occur against a background of war, displacement, and occupation, [they] are not, in the American sense, political.” They don’t dress themselves in the ersatz factional specificity of the news media, in which party affiliation or religious denomination operates as vulgar synecdoche for the mind and the soul. Now, in Abu Saif’s Diary, I’m again struck—perhaps this is the ineradicable American in me, so rich and comfortable that I imagine attribution really means something—by the absence of ostensible politics in this daily reporting from a deeply political conflict in what we imagine to be the most political place on Earth.
It’s impossible for us, outside of Gaza, to talk about Gaza without resorting to one or other contentious genealogies of guilt, to establish who is at fault for whatever is happening, and who is at fault for the fault, and whose fault it was that the proximate fault of today’s fault should have been committed, and on and on back to some foundational failure of the British and the Americans or the Israelis or the Arab States or the Palestinians themselves. I’m not disclaiming the importance of history, nor do I intend to join the cult of weary blamelessness that marks the so many middlebrow sophisticates who wish to stand above the human fray by proclaiming so many of humanity’s most desperate and unjust conflicts to be merely intractable. What a cruel luxury to be able to pronounce something insoluble. I mean, rather, that Abu Saif offers a remedy—if only temporary in its relief—for the bloodless language of provocation and response that afflicts those of us who are not Gaza’s afflicted when we speak about Gaza, our syndrome of caveats.
Abu Saif is a prominent Palestinian, but still an ordinary one. For him, the war appears out of nowhere; its escalations and truces appear out of nowhere; its end appears out of nowhere. Israel is bombing Gaza, but Israel is as distant (though it isn’t distant) and impersonal as the vast atmospheric conditions that cause a storm. The storm is the war, and in Abu Saif’s perfect, appalling metaphor, the drones and F16s on relentless patrol, even the warships out in the Mediterranean, are animals caught up in its tempest as much as Gazans.
The food is ready. I wake the children and bring them in. We all sit around five dishes: white cheese, hummus, orange jam, yellow cheese, and olives. Darkness eats with us. Fear and anxiety eat with us. The unknown eats with us. The F16 eats with us. The drone, and its operator somewhere out in Israel, eat with us.
Of course, the drone and the F16 and the warship are predators, and they are eating Gaza.
If war is a storm, then it is also the weather, and what can be more ordinary, more banal than the weather. The peculiar discomfort of reading The Drone Eats with Me is in the unceasing intervention of the utterly ordinary even as the deaths and casualties mount into the hundreds and then thousands. Abu Saif and his family, like thousands of families, move from place to place—if they are lucky, they lodge with relatives; if not, in converted schools or tents—based on a calculation of the areas more or less likely to be targeted by Israeli bombs. They aren’t really calculations. No one has any idea which buildings or neighborhoods are more or less likely to be hit. If they are lucky, the Israeli military will text them to say it is about to destroy their home.
The children are bored. The power is frequently out. They think endlessly about food and water, in part because provision is both more necessary and more precarious in wartime, but in almost equal part because there is very little else to think about. When there is a lull in the destruction, everyone rushes to the market. Something to do! (It’s also a dire irony that much of the war takes place during Ramadan, when, because of the daily rhythm of fasting and breaking fast, everyone is thinking of food all the time already.)
Four days into the war, when I first realised I was dateless, the only fact I could be certain of was how long the war had lasted for. Your life is bound by the terms of this war, everything is tied to its rhythm, its discourse, its sounds and silences. You know exactly which day of the war you’re on: today is Day 19.
If it took a few days for Abu Saif to feel unmoored from the ordinary calendar, then it nevertheless was only a late-arriving echo of a feeling he describes on just the second page of his Diary, just after the war starts:
All five of us around the table were born in wartime – as Gazans, you don’t get much choice about it. The crowded refugee camp we grew up in, known to Gazans as ‘Jabalia’– once a field of tents, then a forest of shacks, now a jungle of high-rise apartment blocks crammed tightly together – has been beset by wars for as long as we’ve all been alive. Since 1948, before that in fact, since the British mandate began in 1917, Gaza has barely gone ten years without a war, sometimes it’s as little as two between each one. So everyone carries their own memories of conflict: wars stand as markers in a Gazan’s life: there’s one planted firmly in your childhood, one or two more in your adolescence, and so on… they toll the passing of time as you grow older like rings in a tree trunk. Sadly, for many Gazans, one of these wars will also mark life’s end. Life is what we have in between these wars.
Later, Abu Saif will reflect that for his own young children, this war may well be just one of many, the first marker in a life marked by them “like rings in a tree trunk.”
Even the physical landscape of Gaza grows to a calendar of conflicts rather than months and years. At one point, Abu Saif returns to his old neighborhood and has trouble finding his street. All the landmarks are gone. Elsewhere, he reflects on the effect of this endless destruction:
As you walk through the city, you’re constantly reminded that this part has changed, and that part. You know your children will never know about what used to be here or there, or what was here or there before that. The endless wars have prohibited the city from growing in any one direction. Someone who moved away from Gaza ten years ago and then returned would not recognize it, let alone someone from 100 years ago.
This is how war eradicates time by grinding it into a series of measureless days. It is, for me, the most heart-rending of all the individual but accumulating tragedies of The Drone Eats with Me. That feels like an awful admission, since thousands of people are dying. But we have rituals, after all, for the deaths of other people, prayers and funerals, grief and remembering. We have no commensurate language of gestures and rites for places. What can it mean to a person to lose his home again and again? How can those of us who’ve never lost a home even once begin to imagine it? What can it mean to a whole people to lose their place in a cycle, endlessly?
But I do have some idea what this must feel like, because I am a Jew. Until some of my people wrested Israel from Palestine, creating places like Gaza in the process, we encoded that loss and its attendant longing into a holy wish. L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim! Now, of course, any Jew anywhere in the world can go to Jerusalem for the cost of airfare, though it is not the future Jerusalem, the spiritual Jerusalem, to which I have always understood the wish to refer. So we find ourselves in a world where a nation of Jews, whose whole identity as a people was forged by a relentless sense of homelessness, enforces the same catastrophe upon another, poorer, and weaker people. If the memory of exile afflicts us even now that we have America and Israel (and drones and warships and F16s), my God, how must it afflict those who have none of these things?
By the end of the war—the end of this war—nearly three thousand are dead and thousands more injured and much of Gaza once again smashed to rubble. Abu Saif looks forward to a bath, a movie, dreamless sleep. He expresses a modestly contingent hope, although that hope may be all that’s left to him; the war has so exhausted everyone that it’s even worn out despair. And yet a couple of weeks earlier, in defiance of the ongoing war, he risked a trip to the beach, a last chance to swim in the sea before the summer ended. There is a momentary truce:
Today there’s peace and tomorrow there might not be. They all take to the idea. In two hours, Wafi is transporting us all on his three-wheel motorbike to the seafront. Few people are swimming, understandably. I prepare a nargilah pipe, while Abu Aseel takes the three kids for a jump in the sea. Wafi, Faraj and I sit talking, watching them and enjoying the view. It isn’t until the sun starts to set that I realise I still haven’t swum yet. I strip down to my trunks and start towards the water, just as it’s beginning to get dark. The moment my feet touch the water, two beams of light from the warships swing round and seem to focus on one spot: me. For a moment, I’m completely blinded. Abu Aseel shouts that it might not be worth it, tells me to turn around, walk back slowly. No sudden movements.
Maybe this is a metaphor for the tender peace, which tempts like the water’s edge only to turn its brightly predatory eyes upon you. But maybe I am like Abu Saif, and Abu Saif is like the two blinding beams that catch me dipping my toes into the sea. Maybe the sea is the war. It’s impossible to read The Drone Eats with Me without feeling this indictment. Many of us who comfortably opposed the war spent its passage counting the dead. But what about Atef Abu Saif and his wife and his children? What about the people who have to live?