BEIRUT: Scottish author Louisa Waugh was sitting in a hotel cafe with a colleague, drinking sage-infused tea when Israeli intelligence assassinated the senior commander of a Palestinian militant group in a car bomb explosion. He was traveling with a briefcase filled with $100,000 in cash.
“I look around, imagining the scene outside,” Waugh writes in the opening scene of her latest book, recalling her second night in Gaza. “$100 bills burning round a charred car, a hulk of roasted flesh still slumped in the driving seat.”
“Meet Me in Gaza: Uncommon Stories of Life Inside the Strip” compiles the experiences gleaned and tales told over the course of the two-and-a-half years the author spent working for a non-government organization in the territory. It aims to convey the everyday sorrows and joys of the 1.7 million people living inside an area measuring approximately 40x10 km – often described as the world’s largest open-air prison.
Those whose only familiarity with Gaza stems from news items will readily associate it with violence, death and deprivation. These do have their place in Waugh’s book but they are by no means the focus of her narrative.
The stories that occupy the most space, and pack the most punch, are those that show a different side to the strip and its inhabitants: tales of spontaneous dinner and dancing parties; evening strolls on the beach; confidences shared over home-cooked food; and cold winter afternoons spent cocooned in the warmth of one of the region’s oldest hammams.
Waugh is an award-winning author, receiving the 2004 Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize for her book “Hearing Birds Fly: A Nomadic Year in Mongolia.” She moved to Gaza from Ramallah in December 2007 and was based there on-and-off until October 2010.
She worked as a writer at a local human rights center, collecting testimonies from those affected by Israeli shelling and documenting the number of people killed in strikes. There are several harrowing tales of families blown to pieces in their kitchens and children killed while climbing trees near the border.
For the most part, however, Waugh is interested not in death but in life, and in how Gazans choose to live it.
Passages about Waugh’s own experiences in Gaza are interspersed with the stories of those she meets along the way.
These include a family who live just 400 meters from the razor wire of the Erez crossing, the fishermen who patrol the waters near Gaza’s coastline and risk the wrath of Israeli gunships, and an elderly sheikh who used to regularly take a first-class train from Gaza City to Cairo back in the 1960s before the railway was dismantled and the Strip sealed off from the outside world.
To this mix, Waugh adds dashes of regional history, both modern and ancient. These sometimes provide welcome context but at other times are an irritating interruption to the narrative.
The overall effect is choppy and anecdotal, with little sense of chronology, which makes it a good book for those who like to read in fits and starts. On the other hand, it is difficult to become fully absorbed in the narrative.
What Waugh does do wonderfully is communicate a sense of character. The people she meets come to life in all their idiosyncratic appeal. Each is different enough to be memorable, yet together they build a picture of certain Gazan traits, among them a wicked sense of humor in the face of hardship and a talent for finding joy in unexpected places.
Waugh is naturally sympathetic to her Palestinian friends, colleagues and neighbors and horrified by the deprivation and destruction visited upon them as a result of Israel’s blockades and bombings.
Yet she avoids turning “Meet Me in Gaza” into a political tome. When it comes to internal politics, she provides some background on Fatah and Hamas, but focuses more on how politics affect the daily lives of those around her than their competing ideologies.
Many of Waugh’s experiences are positive, but she still communicates the stifling claustrophobia caused by ceaseless power cuts, travel restrictions and shortages and ensures that the conflict is never far from the reader’s mind.
The language Waugh uses is often infused with images of violence, even when the subject or event she is describing is not. Whether this reflects the foreigner’s predisposition to Gaza’s metanarrative of violence or simple literary style, the language maintains a palpable layer of tension throughout, even during the more peaceable, lighthearted portions of the book.
During the early days of a lengthy cease-fire, pomegranates “the size of boxers’ fists” are “slit open” and “devoured,” evoking conflict in the midst of a period of rare calm. Palestinian houses are described as “half-eaten,” Gaza’s atmosphere likened to “a bolshy teenager with a broken face.”
Waugh is a talented writer and “Meet Me in Gaza” is a sensitively judged and engaging read, even if its structure is taxing at times.
In the end the author communicates something self-evident, yet often overlooked in light of Gaza’s frequently violent troubles: Gazans, like people the world over, laugh and cry, dream and hope. They simply do so in the face of hardships most of us would struggle to imagine.
“Meet Me in Gaza: Uncommon Stories of Life Inside the Strip” by Louisa B. Waugh is published by The Westbourne Press and is available from local bookstores.