In the daytime, the old quarter of Gaza City is a zoo of people and cars. The air is dusty, infused with engine exhaust and the earthy odor of falafel grease. The city’s biggest souk—al-Fras—covers several square blocks, a maze of corrugated iron stalls where you can haggle for whole chickens and knockoff fragrances and drink fresh carob juice from a roving man dressed up like a Disneyland version of an Ottoman servant. Tasseled fez, sateen pantaloons.
At night, the old quarter is dead. The shops are all shuttered, and the people have retreated home. It’s eleven o’clock when I creep past Palestine Square and into the heart of the old quarter. I know the church is tucked in the neighborhood somewhere—I’ve been once before, during the day—but all the alleys look the same in the dark. I roll down the window to ask a Hamas policeman. “Salaam aleykum. Where is the church?” I smile at the contradiction between greeting and question. If the policeman notices, he doesn’t show it. “Aleykum isalaam,” he replies. “Turn left at the next corner and follow the street around. You’re really close.”
Two more policemen stand at the entrance to the compound that houses a small Greek Orthodox monastery, a smaller Christian graveyard, and the tiny Church of Saint Porphyrius. As I approach, one of the policemen mutters, “Sahafi.” (Journalist.) They nod as I pass.
Gazan Muslims and Christians have no particular beef that I know of (after all, they’re all Palestinian, and they’re all on the wrong side of the fence), but there have been a few minor incidents in recent decades. There was a mini-riot in 2006 when Pope Benedict XVI was thought to have made disparaging comments about Islam. Muslims protested at Saint Porphyrius. Windows were broken. Then everyone pretty much went home. The irony burned the Christians—the Greek Orthodox have no more love for the Pope than Muslims do.
In May 2008, gunmen beat the guards at one of Gaza’s four Christian schools and made off with the school bus. That same month, someone placed a bomb outside of a Christian family’s home. No one was injured. The case, murky from the start, faded away with time.
The guards at the church tonight—the night before Easter Sunday—might be here for simple, good policing. But they may indicate a threat that Gaza’s Christians are hesitant to admit. Gaza’s estimated 2,500 Christians avoid controversy. The last thing they need is negative attention from the 1.5 million Muslims at the gates.
The church is eight feet below the ground level outside—it’s the original level of the city of Gaza, people tell me—and has that cool, myrrh-scented and marbled aura that I’ve come to associate with Catholicism’s seemingly impenetrable mystery. (I grew up in slightly more austere Episcopalian churches; we had stained glass, but no censer, no stations of the cross, and only token litany).
The foundations of this church were laid in the fifth century. Today, the courtyard outside the church connects with the church wall at its midpoint. In the last twenty years the church complex has been swallowed up by a cinderblock slum. A high wall surrounds the complex. If you didn’t know the church was here, you’d never see it. You’d be shocked to hear quaint bells competing with the distorted roar of Gaza’s minarets at prayer time.
Saint Porphyrius was originally designed as a chapel for the Christian cemetery; the massive Byzantine church—the Cathedral of John the Baptist—was constructed across the street. That edifice is now the al-Umari Mosque—Gaza’s largest and oldest, named after Umar Ibn al-Khattab, the second Caliph of the Islamic Empire, companion of the Prophet Mohammed. Umar was Islam’s first real conqueror. His light cavalrymen swept up from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century and conquered Sassanid Persia and most of the Eastern Roman Empire, including the Holy Lands. Thirteen hundred-odd years later, dozens of Hamas flags fly from the rafters of the Gaza mosque that bears his name, but the building bears an unmistakable architectural birthmark: a large rose window high above the south entrance.
Crusaders briefly retook Gaza in the twelfth century and rededicated the little cemetery chapel to Saint Porphyrius, the mythical fifth century Gazan miracle worker whose hagiography places him as Bishop of Gaza at the time of the church’s consecration. No one can say for sure whether Porphryrius ever lived, but a small bone in a velvet-lined case at the entryway to the church bears enough testimony to his incarnation for most. His tomb is here too, and his icon is plastered all over the walls in dioramas depicting his miracles. In the Byzantine-style paintings, he wears a white stole embroidered with wide-striped red crosses, trimmed in gold. He looks bored, bestowing blessings by rote.
- The choirmistress of the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City reads from her bible during night services on the eve of Easter Sunday.
I take a seat in the back at around eleven fifteen. I am here to see the most important service of the Greek Orthodox calendar—the Pascha, or Easter liturgy. For the first few minutes, I crane my neck back and stare at the ceiling.
I am floored by the beauty of the church’s interior. Every square inch is covered in paint or gold or cloth; it’s as if the church painters were like tattoo addicts who can’t stop until every patch of skin has been colored over, inscribed with a word, a symbol. Just like you can’t erase a tattoo, you can’t erase an icon. That would be bad juju.
But there is harmony in the church’s decor. In the truest sense of the word, it is glorious. Frescoed icons of dozens of saints with beards of various shades adorn the walls and the vaulted ceilings, the gilded trim of their halos shimmering against a background of cerulean blue, lit majestically by two glass chandeliers. A gold mantel above the sanctuary reflects the chandeliers’ bright lights like a sunburst. The face of the Virgin Mary hovers at the highest point above the sanctuary, beaming tranquility down on upon the congregation. Her halo glows with electric intensity. It looks as if it’s lit by blacklight.
- Children light candles beside the sanctuary in the Church of Saint Porphyrius on the night before Easter Sunday. Gaza’s Greek Orthodox population numbers between 2,500 and 3,000. The Church of Saint Porphyrius is the only remaining place of worship for Gaza’s Greek Orthodox. In the last twenty-five years, the Muslim population has doubled in Gaza. Now, fifty percent of Gaza’s 1.5 million people are under the age of eighteen. But the Greek Orthodox population has stayed the same, and many parents worry about the future of their community.
Families trickle in, taking seats in high-backed pews against the walls, dropping ten-shekel coins in the collection box in exchange for spindly candles. On their way into the church, people bow before the shiny brown bone in the glass case. They sweep a hand across its surface then kiss the hand. What is it, a radius, I wonder? I broke my radius in half three years ago snowboarding in Colorado. It seemed bigger in the X-rays than this bone here. People were smaller then, I guess.
Whatever part it is, they sure think it’s real.
I am more taken aback by the number of well-heeled, unveiled women and dapper gentlemen in the audience, and by the fact that several women offered to shake my hand when I entered.
A gang of Palestinian wire service photographers and videographers crashes the service shortly after I arrive. They stand inches from the Archbishop’s face, swarm on a little girl straining on tiptoes to light a vigil candle, pace up and down the aisles like hungry, caged lions. They rend the tranquil silences between the clergy’s chanting with barrages of continuous-fire shutter clicks. I am embarrassed to have my camera slung on my shoulder.
I was in Cairo last year at a Coptic church for Easter. I stuck around for about two hours, but I didn’t make it until midnight, which is when all the fun starts. I was impressed by the stamina of the Copts, who stood on their feet throughout the service and dutifully chanted along with the gaggle of clergy and altar boys at the front of the church. I remember a lot of clanging away with cymbals and bells. I got bored pretty fast.
The opening of the Gaza service is much the same. Lots of standing. Lots of chanting. From the chorus of Greek and Arabic I can only pick out words like “Maseeh” (Messiah) and Mariam (Magdalena).
Then, at eleven thirty, the lights suddenly go out and the Archbishop explodes from the sanctuary bearing two giant torches in outstretched arms, his head cocked back, chanting like a wolf howling to the moon. It’s religion with pyrotechnics. The congregation transforms into a crowd at a rock concert—everyone knows the words, and everyone joins in the chant. Now it’s getting good. Even better, the Archbishop is using his twin torches to light the congregation’s vigil candles. He’s crowd-surfing on the spirit. The people are loving it.
- The Archbishop of Tiberias lights the congregation’s vigil candles close to midnight on the night before Easter.
The Archbishop—clad in a gilded silk robe the color and pattern of a Fabergé egg, wearing a maroon crown lifted from the Tudors’ royal closet—leads the congregation out into the courtyard. Christ will be resurrected soon. The crowd is getting hyped up for his ascension. The chanting doesn’t let up for the next thirty minutes. The Archbishop leads chants from a special book of Arabic-language Easter hymns. He beams from the stage, surrounded by a cadre of equally exuberant altar boys and clerical assistants.
Only the Abouna—literally “our father”—of the congregation, second in command to the Archbishop, looks unenthused. I met him once on my way into Gaza through the Erez Terminal, on Gaza’s northern border with Israel. He was dressed in his black cassock with a pair of designer sunglasses and a neatly trimmed goatee, coming back into Gaza from a weekend in Jerusalem. He is Greek, like the Archbishop. Also like the Archbishop, he has packed on a few in the cloister. His name is Abouna Andreas. He’s in his early thirties, close to my age. He looks depressed up there on stage tonight. And clammy.
- Alexios, Archbishop of Tiberias, leads a singing celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the courtyard of the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza. Alexios has lived and ministered in the Holy Lands for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate for more than thirty years, and has presided over Gaza’s congregation since 2001.
Gaza is an amazing place to live if you’re into the intensity of the political situation and the extreme foreignness of living in an increasingly radicalized Islamic society. But it would not be a fun place, I think, to minister to a dwindling flock of Christians who are trapped in a prison forty-two kilometers in length and besieged on all sides by the Israeli military machine and the surging tide of Muslim Gazan demography. Maybe Abouna Andreas relishes the challenge, but I’ll bet he’s in the doldrums.
Or he could just be hungover. When I met him at Erez, I helped him drag his suitcases through the turnstile and over the half-kilometer tract between the gate to Israel and the parking lot where Gazan drivers can pick up their passengers. The suitcases felt like they had bodies inside. They clinked loudly. There aren’t enough Christians in Gaza to need that much communion wine.
- A Gazan Greek Orthodox woman with her vigil candle on the night before Easter in the Church of Saint Porphyrius. Some Greek Orthodox women drape simple, lace scarves over their heads inside the church, but most women went unveiled. As the Hamas movement purues its policy of Islamicization in Gaza, Christian women are increasingly pressured to avoid the streets, where harassment is a daily frustration.
At midnight the courtyard fills with the din of clanging bells and the chanting surges to a new level. “Christ is risen!” the Archbishop cries in Arabic at the end of every verse. The crowd replies, “Indeed he is risen!” The call and response involves a phrase that sounds to me like “Ha ha ha!” But it’s actually haqan qam, from the phrase Al Maseeh haqan qam (Christ conquered death). Haqan qam, I would later find out, is a traditional Easter greeting among Arabic speaking Christians. The complete phrase from the Greek Orthodox Litany of the Resurrection, in English, is: “Mary weep no more / Christ conquered death.”
Shortly after midnight, the Archbishop leads the congregation back down the little staircase, stopping at the church’s thick wooden door. I’m waiting on the inside, having come in from a separate entrance to try to photograph the Archbishop as he enters. To my surprise, I find an old man shouldering the door with all his might. A few teenage girls look on, giggling at the old-timer. A fist pounds on the door from outside.
The old man rasps as loudly as he can muster, “Meen howa il malik il majd?” (Who is he, the king of glory?)
A response comes from outside: “Al Maseeh!” (The Messiah!)
The old man double checks and triple checks—making sure the Holy Spirit is indeed out there—before letting the Archbishop surge into the church with the congregation tripping on his heels. A little later, the chanting lets up so that the members of the congregation can greet each other with “Kool sanaa wa inta salim.” (May you be peaceful the whole year.)
- Archbishop Alexios leads a singing celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ in the courtyard of the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza. Abouna Andreas stands to the Archbishop’s left. Alexios has lived and ministered in the Holy Lands for the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate for more than thirty years, and has presided over Gaza’s congregation since 2001.
Then the chanting resumes. More mellow now. The rock show is over for the night. I head home at about one fifteen, totally jazzed, holding the wheel with one hand and flipping through my photos with another. It’s hard to explain how I feel after seeing this celebration of life and color and sound, this ostentatious display of faith in the mystical aspect of God and the power of ritual and representation. The normal display of worship I have seen among Muslims in Gaza over the last year seems so Puritan by comparison, so joyless. Muslims have a similar fear of representing God as Jews do—God cannot truly be described or given shape, and his will can only be summed up by the phrase Insha’allah (As God wills). To imply that one truly understands the will of God is to invite hellfire.
Among the three “religions of the book,” it is only in Christianity that God has taken human shape. A fact of obvious importance on Easter—when Jesus’ fully mortal body ascended to heaven to rejoin his divine aspect. Christianity departs from the other two Abrahamic faiths in another important way, according to the Archbishop: “Only Jesus Christ preached a message of love. Only Jesus Christ said that you have to love your enemies.”
- Altar boys lined up with vigil candles beneath the platform where the Archbishop of Tiberias leads the congregation in the celebration of the resurrection.
“We have no problems with the Muslims and they have no problems with us,” says sixty-seven-year-old Hana Jahshan. “In fact, when they come and stay with us they realize they love us more than their own people!” The laughter in the Jahshans’ parlor drowns out the maniacal chirping of a canary in a cage above the sofa.
Hana Jahshan lives with her brother Ziad and her widowed sister Georgette Hilal (I asked, it’s Georgette in Arabic too, from the old Arabic name Yergis) in a house of uncertain age just steps away from the Church of Saint Porphyrius. Hana and her brother never married, but Georgette had three sons. I owe my invitation to the Jahshans’ home to Tawfiq Hilal, Georgette’s forty-five-year-old son. Tawfiq is the only one of Georgette’s three sons who remains in Gaza. Tawfiq has a brother in Syria and another in Greece, where Tawfiq himself spent fifteen years before returning to Gaza in 1999.
“I would never leave again,” he tells me. “No way.”
Tawfiq is a driver for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), a good job in Gaza, where 40 percent of adult men are unemployed. But Tawfiq has a university degree from Greece, speaks fluent Greek, English, and Spanish. He could do more. Now, with the closure of Gaza and the severe access and movement restrictions, leaving is not really an option—but Tawfiq insists that he is committed to stay to hold down the fort. His mother, aunt, and uncle are in the last years of their lives. The old family house—built by Tawiq’s grandfather—might fall into non-family hands, or simply be destroyed, if he doesn’t stay.
Tawfiq’s two-year-old daughter Amal plays at his feet. She is dressed up in a puffy red satin dress with white sleeves, a little bow in her hair. Tawfiq and his wife Samah were married four years ago. Amal is their first child. Samah is showing slightly with baby number two. Tawfiq says they will probably have only two or three children, Insha’allah (the phrase is used by Muslims and Christians).
The Christian population stays the same size, while the Muslim population climbs out of control, cramming more and more people into this already overpopulated enclave. “They produce like rabbits,” Tawfiq says with a laugh. “For us, we just have two or three children to keep our numbers the same. There is no opportunity here, no work. Why bring six children into this?”
When no one is looking, Amal takes a chocolate wafer bar from a plastic table at Tawfiq’s side. “Shaatra,” (clever) Tawfiq says to me, grinning widely. “Just like her father,” he adds. Samah raises a voice of protest from the other side of the room—“Like her mother!”
Like many Palestinians, the three elderly siblings—Hana, Ziad, and Georgette—have aged quickly: together they have survived the 1948 refugee crisis, the 1967 war, a pair of intifadas, the Israeli occupation of Gaza, the blockade, and most recently Operation Cast Lead. Not to mention a lifelong parade of much-touted, totally failed political agreements. But you would not know, sitting in the parlor with the maniac canary chirping overhead, sipping on chai with mint and feeling the warm sun on your face, gazing at these vaulted ceilings and feeling the corners of your mouth crease as Hana rattles off another joke; you would not know how deep the sadness runs in this place.
- The Jahshan family at home on Easter Sunday, after services at the Church of Saint Porphyrius in Gaza City. Sixty-seven year old Hana Jahshan lives in her grandfather’s home with her brother, Ziad, and her sister Georgette Hilal. The family home is in the Zaytun quarter of Gaza City, steps away from Saint Porphyrius; the area was once home to thousands of Christians, but years of war and economic hardship, and now blockade, have caused an exodus of Christians all over the Holy Land.
Hana is the spokeswoman. It’s easy to divine from the framed black and white portrait on the wall that the charming, spirited jokester of today must have been a knockout in her youth (now, however, modesty has taken over; she steadfastly refuses to have her picture taken, for fear that Hamas will catch a glimpse of her unveiled—she only gives in when I tell her that she’s the most beautiful woman in the room).
Hana Jahshan fled Jaffa when she was five years old. Her father was working in Jaffa—the ancient Mediterranean port city that has since been taken over by Tel Aviv—but his father’s family remained in Gaza. During the war that Israelis call the War of Independence, and Palestinians call al-Naqba (the Disaster), the family fled to Hana’s grandfather’s home in a human train of refugees thousands deep. She has lived in Gaza ever since. It hasn’t been all bad.
She laughs with her sister about the halcyon days before the 1967 war, before Israeli troops stormed across the Gaza Strip and occupied territory extending all the way into the North Sinai (They would hold Gaza, more or less, settling on some of the best agricultural and coastal land, for the next thirty-eight years). “There weren’t so many people,” she says. “And almost no cars! And there was the sea.” Now the sea off Gaza is so polluted with untreated sewage that you can smell it from the shore. The Israelis have consistently blocked the materials necessary for improving and expanding Gaza’s wastewater treatment plants, contributing to an environmental disaster area in a section of the Mediterranean basin stretching from Egypt as far north as Tel Aviv.
“The citrus groves used to spread from one end of Gaza to the other,” Tawfiq tells me. Hana and Georgette rattle off the names of the five cinemas Gaza City boasted in the 1950s. The films came from Egypt, during the heyday of Egyptian cinema. “And there was wine, and whiskey,” Ziad chimes in. I give him a knowing glance. These things are important.
- Hana Jahshan (center) next to her brother, Ziad, and her sister, Georgette Hilal, on Easter Sunday. The three siblings live in one room in the home their grandfather built in the Old City of Gaza, which has been swallowed up by cinderblock slums in recent decades, built to house Gaza’s exploding Muslim population. Ziad and Hana never married, and Georgette has only three children, two of whom live abroad.
“What does Easter mean to you?” I ask the room.
Hana answers, “You feel renewed, you feel hope.” I ask her to explain further, and she begs off at first, feeling shy. But I get Tawfiq to encourage his aunt, and her face lights up. “We see Jesus is risen, and we feel our lives are renewed, that we can have hope again.” I can tell by Hana’s earnestness that she believes what she is saying, but I can’t help thinking to myself, how can you have hope in these times? I say as much to the Jahshans.
“You are in the darkest times here. It’s very difficult,” Tawfiq says, “with the fanaticism, the embargo.”
I didn’t want to ruin their Easter afternoon with talk of the siege or Hamas or the Islamicization of Gaza, but Tawfiq has opened the door. “We don’t walk much at all,” Samah says. “We go from place to place in cars, and we can’t really walk anywhere without our husbands.” It’s bad enough for unaccompanied young Muslim women to walk in certain quarters of Gaza City—veiled and wearing floor-length, loose-fitting cloaks—let alone for Christian women, who go without hijab. Women like Samah cannot go to a place like al-Fras market. She would come under a shower of insults from the shebab—boys ranging in age from eight to their early twenties.
I first learned of the prevalence of harassment in Arab countries during my time in Cairo, in 2008, when—within days of each other—I read a Gallup poll showing Egypt as the most religious country in the world and an article in the Daily News Egypt explaining how the majority of Cairene women face multiple forms of sexual harassment in their daily lives. Sexual harassment happens everywhere in the world, but for the Gazan public—on the surface so pious and so committed to Islamic values, at least in as much as they support groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad—to tolerate the vicious harassment of women in public seems a cruel irony.
Sadly, I know for a fact that public sexual harassment of women, veiled and unveiled, is commonplace in Gaza: my own girlfriend of three years, who lives here with me, has been harassed multiple times while walking down the street, as have my female colleagues. The more my girlfriend understands Arabic, the harder she finds it to walk outside. The sadder she finds this place.
“It’s harder than any time in the past,” says Hana Jahshan. It’s a refrain I’ve heard over and over again from Gazans of all ages.
I have told my Gazan colleagues and many of my acquaintances that I am married, when in fact I live with my girlfriend here. It’s easier than explaining the difference between current cultural norms in my country and the norm here. And it preserves my girlfriend’s reputation and mine. When the Jahshans ask me if I am married, I naturally say yes. I’ve gotten used to answering that way. People almost never ask me if I have a girlfriend. It’s either married or not, no in betweens.
Hana asks why I don’t wear a ring. “I don’t have enough money yet,” I say. A half-truth. Hana looks like she doesn’t buy it. There is a famous gold market between al-Umari and the Church of Saint Porphyrius. Ziad works there. He is a gentle giant with hands the size of shovels. “You can come to my shop and buy a nice ring,” he says. “Okay,” I say, “but first I’ll need to go to the bank.” Ziad assures me, “No, we can get you a nice silver one for ten shekels.” Everyone laughs. Ten shekels is a little less than three dollars.
Georgette Hilal serves me tea, and I find that she has a sense of humor too. It runs in the family. She holds a spoonful of sugar above my cup, showing her good manners, and asks me how much sugar I take. “Mazboot,” I say. (Just right.) Georgette flashes a mischievous smile and asks me, loud enough for everyone to hear, “Is your wife fat or skinny?” Without missing a beat, I say, “mazboota.”
The Jahshans’ laughter drowns out the canary again, and we have secured our friendship with a joke, as it so often goes. I promise to bring my “wife” back the following weekend—which is to be my last in Gaza after a year and a half. As I get up to leave, Hana protests. “Badri!” she says. (It’s early!)
Ziad walks me back to the monastery complex and says goodbye, enveloping my hand up to the wrist in his giant palm. I wander into the empty complex and take the stairs up into the monastery, where I find the Archbishop in a simple maroon cassock, putting on his shoes. He invites me into what is best described as his throne room. When I enter, he gives me three kisses on the cheek—a common practice among men in Gaza, but here it symbolizes the Holy Trinity. Royal red velvet chairs framed in gold-plated wood line the walls. Baskets of dyed red Easter eggs (and chocolate ones) sit atop every table, along with platters of date-filled sugar cookies called ka’ik—a holiday treat beloved by Muslims and Christians. A reproduction of the pledge Umar Ibn al-Khattab made to the Patriarch Saphronius in 638 to protect Jerusalem’s Christians, known as the “Covenant of Umar,” hangs on the wall. It begins, “Bismi Allah al Rahman al Rahim” (In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate).
Fifty-six-year-old Alexios, bearded and sanguine, as an Archbishop should be, is officially the Archbishop of Tiberias. He has spent his whole career in the Holy Land, including a two-decade stint with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Jerusalem. He came into Gaza in 2001, during the height of the al-Aqsa Intifada, when the Israeli Air Force regularly bombed civilian areas in occupied Gaza, when Palestinian suicide bombers waged a hideous war against Israeli civilians.
And yet, Alexios, echoing Hana Jahshan, fears his congregation has never faced harder times. The Israeli offensive against Hamas last year, Operation Cast Lead, combined with a near-complete blockade now in its fourth year, have all but crushed the resolve, and hope, of hundreds of thousands of Gazans. Fifty percent of Gaza’s population is under the age of eighteen, meaning that an entire generation of children is growing up with dispossession and de-development as the economic norm, with hopelessness as the consequence, and with radicalization as a likely psychological coping mechanism.
Religion provides a light at the end of the tunnel for many—at the very least in the promise of a peaceful afterlife. Families of resistance fighters and civilians killed by Israeli aggression take comfort in the idea that the shaheed (martyrs) have a fast track to heaven. Poor people console themselves with the idea that God will provide. Their prayers are partially answered in most cases. In Gaza, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) and the World Food Program (WFP) feed roughly two-thirds of the Palestinian population, nearly a million mouths between them. UNRWA also employs nearly 10,000 Palestinians. That’s roughly one out of every 75 adults. They are teachers, administrators, garbagemen. In a sense, UNRWA is the de-facto government in Gaza. It is the most enduring and stable institution living Palestinians have ever known, aside from the Israeli occupation.
Whether UNRWA’s long-term impact on the Palestinian refugee issue has been positive or negative is a riddle of chicken and egg proportions among humanitarian workers and diplomats in the region. Many (including me) are convinced that UNRWA has done a disservice to Palestinian refugees by encouraging them to cling to refugee status under international human rights law when the countries who matter aren’t willing to hold Israel accountable to that set of laws, and aren’t going to change tack anytime soon. But no matter how you slice it, UNRWA offers refugees mooring and a sense of normalcy—no small feat in this neighborhood.
The smuggling economy, fueled by dozens of tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border, offers the illusion of economic normalcy to consumers. Thanks to the tunnels, chocolate and potato chips are available on Gaza’s supermarket shelves, Chinese motorcycles zip up and down Gaza’s potholed avenues, and the Gaza Zoo has a scraggly new lion to replace the one killed during Cast Lead.
I ask Alexios if it’s difficult to minister to a flock under such desperate political and humanitarian conditions. (While Christians are more economically secure as a group than Muslims, they have the added pressure of being an extreme social minority in a highly Islamicized, Hamas-run society; they are less than 0.2 percent of the population).
“You face temptation in different ways anywhere in the world,” Alexios says. “Here it’s just more intense—with war, closure, fanaticism. But you have the courage to go on if you believe in the story of Jesus Christ, because you can say, what happened to him is so much worse than what happened to us.”
In the throne room, I ask Archbishop Alexios, “What is the special message of Easter?”
“God gave his son on the cross to show his love and forgiveness for human beings. It was the ultimate sacrifice,” he explains. The story of the resurrection of “Jesus Christ gives hope—for the future, for everything.” He pauses. “And without hope a human being will die.”
Having witnessed Gazans pulling bodies from the rubble and sifting through their fire-gutted homes during Operation Cast Lead; having seen coffee shops bustling and hazy with shisha smoke almost as soon as the war ended; having shared so much of the Gazans’ visceral anger at the travesty of moral justice the world has allowed to persist over the last year, with the failure of foreign governments, particularly the US, to bring a swift end to Cast Lead, and with the exponentially sadder failure of foreign governments to endorse the Goldstone Report and treat Israel as a nation among nations, accountable to the same laws as other states; having managed a security project in Gaza in which I do a daily tally of bloody data, including the numbers of wounded and dead Palestinians and Israeli casualties (in the last six months, twenty-two Palestinians have died from Israeli military aggression and seventy-seven have been wounded, compared to four Israeli deaths, two of which occurred when Israeli troops invaded Gaza last month, and one of which resulted from friendly fire); having jotted down and pored over every incident of Israeli and Palestinian hostile fire (including Palestinian infighting, on the rise again); having been dumbfounded over and again by the shallowness and lack of ethical conviction on the part of the global media whenever Israel and Palestine are concerned; having lain awake at night and dealt with the sad realization that the extremists on both sides are probably right (this will not end without blood, and will not end any time soon); having had my mind occupied by this conflict, my emotions taken hostage, my heart hardened against my will; having had these experiences here, in this most contested land; and having marveled at the ability of Palestinians to pick up and go on, I tend to believe that Alexios is right: hope is the key to our survival as human beings.
When we give up hope—when it is stolen from us, pounded out of us, or however we lose it—we die.
We die a spiritual death. The body runs on autopilot. All that’s left without hope is a rattling hollowness wrapped in flesh, so traumatized as to no longer yearn for love, togetherness, or understanding.
If your spirit lives, you may yet be resurrected.
That is the message I take home from Easter in Gaza.
I drive down Omar al-Mukhtar Street after leaving Archbishop Alexios in the monastery late in the afternoon on Easter Sunday. Omar al-Mukhtar Street goes from the old quarter—where the Church of Saint Porphyrius and the al-Umari Mosque are—past the Saraya prison complex and down through the wealthiest district of Gaza City, al-Rimal quarter, before dropping downhill to a dead end at the sea.
Sunday is a working day in Gaza and the shops in al-Rimal are open. There is a large garden area in the middle of the boulevard with trees and a non-functioning fountain, a man with a cart who sells lemon ice and another man who sells balloon animals.
Last October, construction workers tore down the sagging skeleton of the Palestinian Legislative Building, bombed beyond repair in the opening salvos of Cast Lead. The PLC building, once the jewel at the heart of al-Rimal, was a memorial to post-Oslo optimism. Now its remains have been ground to powder in concrete recycling plants, its rebar girdings straightened and bundled for sale on the building materials market. Israel won’t allow concrete into Gaza, for fear Hamas will build fortifications, so Gazans are making their own with tunnel-smuggled cement and reclaimed wreckage.
The upside of the PLC demolition is that the evidence of war has been erased from this otherwise pleasant promenade. Today, the weather is warm and the sidewalks are teeming with shoppers and young people out to be seen. The ice cream parlors and shwarma stands are packed. Clusters of heads swathed in dayglo veils peer into shop windows, oogling knee length boots and high-heeled strappy sandals. Things seem normal.
But everyone is in groups. Women are with their brothers or their husbands, or with a troop of girlfriends. You can spot a hot date from a mile away: two young women escorted by one young man. This level of supervision flies below the radar.
The shebab, as always, rove in packs. Shiny hair, shiny shoes.
I think of Amal, Tawfiq’s two-year-old daughter, bundled up this morning like a box of Valentine’s Day chocolates. Will she stay in Gaza? Will she marry a Christian and secure the tiny population into the next half of the century? Will she choose to leave? Will she have a choice?
Amal might be able to walk here when she’s a teenager. Al Rimal is as bourgeois as it gets in Gaza. And besides, the siege of Gaza cannot go on forever. Israel will not be able to count on its exceptionalism for another six decades. As far as Hamas goes, fanaticism is a trend that burns out over time. The population grows tired and yearns for true normalcy, whatever it takes. After all, Yasser Arafat and the PLO were the posterboys of the Palestinian resistance for decades. Then one day, not long after the First Intifada rocked the Holy Land, Arafat shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin and put his pen to the Oslo Accords. Suddenly, he had something like a country to govern. He changed. The PLO changed with him.
If it lasts—and I think it will—the Hamas movement will have to change too. Someday, who knows when, Hamas will have to govern and deliver services to the people without the cushion provided by UNRWA and the NGOs. It will have to deal with foreign dignitaries and governments and measure its words. In the best-case scenario, Hamas will patch things up with Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Then the Palestinian question might re-emerge as something that’s even worth asking. How the Palestinian political leadership has fallen so hard for Israel’s divide and conquer strategy never ceases to amaze me. But they can’t fall much farther.
However it plays out, things will have to change.
I try to imagine orderly traffic flowing down Omar al-Mukhtar. Stores doing a bustling business in goods delivered legally over Gaza’s borders. Customers spending money earned from fishing, farming, manufacturing, import-export. The smoke from kebab shops wafting into the windows of late model cars. University students gathered around an oud in the park. I try to imagine Amal growing up in a future with no blockade, of any kind.
In Arabic, her name means hope.