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Portraits of Survival

ISSUE:  Summer 2009
An old man wearing a turban gazes at the camera. His face is creased and leathery. He has a close-cropped salt-and-pepper beard.
My teacher bought me a dreidel
made from cast lead.
Do you know the reason?
In honor of Hanukkah!
Hayyim Nahman Bialik, “In Honor of Hanukkah”

I arrived in Gaza during the last days of Israel’s Operation Cast Lead—launched on December 27, 2008, the last day of Hanukkah. On previous trips to Gaza, I had documented my fair share of funerals, burials, mourning families, people salvaging belongings from the ruins of their homes. And always the ensuing Hamas marches, the masked gunmen, the shouts of anger. Though the scale of this Israeli incursion was larger than any I could remember, when I again found myself crossing the border, the circumstances felt all too familiar, and I carried with me the fear that there was nothing new I could document.

Gaza, after all, has been consistently and extensively photographed for decades. There are dozens of talented and professional Palestinian photographers who work with scores of agencies, bringing the experience of the region to the world. In addition, some of the most talented international photojournalists have made Gaza the focus of their work. This is the challenge of coming to Gaza: how to shed new light on one of the world’s most thoroughly photographed human tragedies?

But then I met Ismail Ibrahim Abu Eida. He was walking near the rubble of his family home. His family had been displaced to a UN refugee center, and he was sleeping on a mattress in a cargo container on the family property. With a voice that was severely controlled, he explained to me how tanks and bulldozers had forced him to flee and leveled everything he had built over the course of his life, including his family’s orange groves. Then he invited me for tea.

He had only one cup. Ten minutes of digging in the rubble produced a second—broken but usable. He had no place for me to sit but a shout to a friend down the road produced a three-legged plastic chair. I protested this kindness, but he wouldn’t hear of it, reminding me that I was his guest. “It is our way, Mr. Rafiqui,” he insisted, as he made himself comfortable in the dirt, “to honor our guests—and to remind ourselves of the things within us which cannot be destroyed by tanks and missiles.”

As the day grew hotter, the mist that shrouded the citrus groves lifted, revealing what had once been the Jabaliya industrial zone. Ismail pointed toward Israel. I could see a wire fence and the silhouettes of soldiers walking along it. Israeli farmers had begun returning to their fields that morning as jeeps carrying soldiers raced back and forth along the border areas. Snipers kept an eye on the few Palestinians who dared to return to their lands. Despite the cease-fire, Gazan farmers were being shot and killed at random. “I used to work in Israel,” Ismail said. “But that was a different time, a different world.”

I stared into his face—still stern and composed. In the blink of an eye, an entire life, an entire dream, had been wiped out. His wife and children dispersed to UN shelters. His lands and beloved citrus groves torn to shreds. And yet here we were, two strangers from worlds apart, sharing a carefully made cup of green tea.

This, I realized, was what I could add. Not the familiar scenes of destruction in Gaza but the steadfast faces of survival. To capture each intimate portrait required that I spend just a little more time with people, that I hear a bit more about their lives, look more deeply at them. And find the story of Gaza in their faces.

A woman with a long face and a headscarf.

“Sons are the light of their mother’s eyes,” she said. “My eyes have lost their light.”

She kept dialing a number in Egypt. Relatives and neighbors who filled the front compound of her home kept handing her their mobiles in the hope that one of them would connect to the Egyptian hospital where Nabila Jadali’s sons had been sent for treatment.

Her son, Mohamad Jadali, had not survived the rain of shells that landed on her home. Two other sons were in an intensive care unit in Egypt, evacuated across the Rafah border, and she was unable to locate them. She would later learn that Abdil Hadi had been blinded and Khalil had lost his legs in the attack.

A young man with a light beard and a jacket with the hood raised.

“It’s one of the better paying jobs available in Gaza,” Aboud said. “I am not an extremist nor am I digging towards a revolution. I am simply digging to eat and to feed my family.”

As we spoke, Israeli jets bombarded the tunnels along the border of Egypt. We were meters away from the strike area, where tunnel owners and workers waited for the jets to leave so they could begin their work again.

An older man with a light beard, a square jaw, and a taqiyah on his head.

The last time I saw Ahdaf Soueif, the Egyptian writer, she thrust a bundle of Euros into my hand and asked that I give the money to a man named Hashim El Qudrah in the Jabaliya refugee camp.

Crippled by age and unable to leave his home, El Qudrah and his two wives had lived through twenty-two days of attacks by Israeli jets, helicopters, tanks, and soldiers.

“Trapped like animals and living like animals,” he said, when he showed me his home. He worried about his hospitality. “I have nothing in the house.

I cannot serve you anything.” I had added to his humiliations; after a month of many deaths, now the inability to offer hospitality to a guest.

A younger woman with a headscarf and full lips.

She was a shadow in a doorway looking at me as I walked away from the Samouni family compound, where twenty-nine members of the clan had been killed by Israeli forces. A few minutes later a man walked up to me and asked if I would like to speak to Rania Samouni. She wanted to speak with me.

The massacre of the Samouni clan at the hands of Israeli soldiers had been reported by every major print, television, and Internet news organization covering the aftermath of Israeli’s Operation Cast Lead. But that afternoon, she didn’t want to discuss the loss of the clan; she wanted someone to hear about her particular loss—the death of her husband, Eyad Samouni.

A round-faced woman with a headscarf.

She kept speaking about her son in the present tense. “He is a happy child.

He was so excited about school when he first starting going, and now loves to prepare his uniform each day.”

Her eight-year-old son, Zakaria Hamid Samouni, had been killed when a rocket fired from an Israeli military helicopter fell near where he was playing. As Rida Samouni spoke, she seemed oddly at ease. Her other children milled about the room playfully, hiding behind her, staring at me and laughing.

A young girl wearing a sweater, chewing on her lower lip.

“Tell me one thing you liked to do with your brother,” I said.

She let her eyes wander, thinking. “I liked walking with him to school.” When she said this, she laughed and hid behind her mother.

Noor Samouni is sister of Zakaria Hamid Samouni.

“Who will you walk with now?” I asked.

“I don’t need to. Mama says that they killed the school too.”

A balding, bearded, middle-aged man, his head tilted back as he gazes directly into the camera.

Majid Fateh Abdil Aziz El Najjar unlocked the door of his home to allow me to see the damage caused by Israeli tank fire and phosphorous shell attacks. As we entered the foyer I noticed a small, decaying bouquet of flowers leaning against a wall. That is where Majid’s wife of sixteen years, Hanan Fateh Abdil Ghani Qodeh, was killed.

“She waited eight years for me,” he told me. “When I was in an Israeli prison, she waited eight years so that we could marry. We were in love.”

We walked around the house for some minutes, looking to see what could be salvaged, but rubble covered the entire house.

A girl, wrapped in a headscarf, with freckles and a round face.

I found it impossible to take my eyes off Najwan Rabi Ahmed Sultan’s face. Not only because of her beauty but because of the strength that seemed to emanate from her.

She had fled with her family from their home as the Israeli tanks attacked Beit Lahia, spending weeks moving between shelters set up in various local school buildings.

“I come from a cultured, educated family,” she said. “But for weeks we suffered like animals.”

She held herself upright, looking me straight in the eyes. “It was too much to bear: to be able to do nothing, to watch my mother plead and beg for our food, blankets, or a place to wash. No child should ever have to see that.”

A teenaged boy, a light moustache over his lip, with long eyelashes and a backwards baseball cap.

I had come to Mahmud Ankah’s home to learn about the death of one of his relatives who was killed during an Israeli military strike in the Beit Lahia camp. A good-looking eighteen-year-old, dressed in designer jeans and sporting a baseball cap, he had entered the room and quietly placed himself in a corner, where he listened to my interviews with his family members.

When he approached me I thought that he wanted to speak about the conflict, but instead he plied me with questions about traveling to different countries and particularly about the process of walking across an international border.

“So you can just walk across into Egypt?” he asked.

A young boy, his head tilted downward, looks up at the camera.

Jihad Abu Jawara refused to be photographed. His father had been killed days earlier in a rocket attack on the family home on January 9, 2009. I showed him a photograph of my daughter Sofia. Meeting Jihad had reminded me how much I missed her. I told Jihad that all I wanted to do was take a simple picture like the one I have of my daughter so that I could remember him wherever I went. He looked at her photograph, and smiled back at her smiling face.

Asim Rafiqui traveled to Gaza with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.


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