I want to share this account* as a small intervention to re-frame ideas and experiences of violence and terror.
I was an ambulance volunteer during Israel's Operation Cast Lead. It was a 22 day war on the Gaza Strip in 2008-2009 that killed 1409 Palestinians and 13 Israelis. It was the heaviest Israeli attack on Palestinian territory since 1967. The 2014 Gaza War has since eclipsed this in terms of deaths, injury and destruction in Gaza.
On the afternoon of Friday the 16th of January we picked up the body of a man who had just been decapitated by an Israeli air strike.
Dominant cultural narratives on violence in the global north now only see beheading as a terrorist act by ISIS or Al Qaeda or similar groups. The perpetrator is a Muslim. The colonial fantasy of the savage is coming back in to focus.
The role of the state, armed with heavy aerial power – drones, F16s, Apache Helicopters, MIG jets – is not part of the story of beheading. I think it's important to bring the role of states back in to the story, all the more so given that UK air strikes on Syria could be about to intensify.
Violent deaths and their invisibilisation, as routinely experienced by marginalised and demonised populations, represent a form of collective punishment and a wielded amnesia, which can dismember communities and families as well as individuals.
The following account is about trying to find out who the headless man was, to try and piece him back together, and recover a sense of who he was.
*The account is a chapter in my book Podpalic Gaze (Raze Gaza) published by WAB Warsaw, 2011. Only available in Polish. The original is written in English and was translated into Polish.
The Headless Man
When the ceasefire had been declared, we were able to go home, if we had homes left to go to. Mine before the attack had been the opulent, iron-shuttered Rimal neighbourhood mansion of respected psychologist Eyad Sarraj. It was here that I had my backpack, books, spare socks and clean clothes that seemed to belong to another life, another person now, after everything. I couldn’t access them during the massacres, borrowing the socks, over-sized jumpers and an impossibly impractical white puffa-jacket, from my friend Mohammad instead. I had dropped by a few times during everything, to try to grab something warm, but the electricity was always down, and the thick metal door shut, with a soundless buzzer that it made no sense to push, and my voice carrying no further than the palm and orange trees standing stoical in the garden.
Nour, Eyad’s 14-year-old step-daughter, belonging to his formidable wife Nirmeen, had lost a close friend during the attack. Christine Tarrazi, 14, from the Salateen area and suffering from asthma, had had a heart attack from fear, after occupation forces invaded her area, shooting into and demolishing homes around her.
Nour also had no school left to go to. An Israeli F16 had levelled it - the American School – once the prize of Gaza, built with US aid money, was now reduced to the familiar shape of a triple decker concrete sandwich.
Eyad’s wife, Nirmeen, is young, beautiful, feisty and talented, but deeply frustrated by Gaza. She had moved swiftly through the ranks of the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and held a position that allowed her to join the class of the rare few in Gaza who could travel overseas.
A few weeks before the massacres, she had been scheduled to fly to Switzerland for a UN training course. She had deliberated as to whether to accept the trip or not. On the one hand she wanted the respite, ‘to breathe new air’, to exit the ghetto, albeit temporarily, to enrich her life, and crucially, to develop herself and advance her career. On the other hand, she feared the worst – being trapped outside and unable to return, stuck in ’48 and forced to face the humiliation of being turned away, day after day, as had happened to so many who had left Gaza for work.
She had three children including Nour, Adam 9, and in her youngest fathered by Eyad, 3-year-old Ali or ‘Foostoq’ (Pistachio-nut). The risk of being separated from them was too much to bear. Despite the golden opportunity to progress in her profession and release herself from the ghetto, she couldn’t feel any excitement or hope, instead she felt dread and anxiety and secretly hoped that the decision would be take out of her hands and that actually, she wouldn’t be able to go. And this is what happened. The Israelis refused her permission to leave – despite UN staff being privileged with freedom of movement. The mirage of the open door in the wall evaporated back into an edifice. Nirmeen however, was relieved.
Now, sitting on the cold marble steps outside their apartment, smoking super-thin slims, she couldn’t quite savour her relief that the attack was over. A dislocated kind of disbelief still dominated. During the attacks and now still, Nirmeen questioned whether she was right to have even brought children into this world, into a life in Gaza? Was she selfish in her desire for children when she knows now more acutely than ever before, that there is absolutely nothing she can do to protect them?
‘I swear if I hear any more bombs, I will die. I just want one day, one day, where I feel totally happy, one day in my life. I haven’t seen a single good day in my life’. She said.
The Ear of Gaza
Eyad Sarraj, Chairman of the Gaza Community Mental Health project, the pioneering and literally life-saving psychosocial support programme spanning the whole of the Gaza Strip sits in his armchair silently. Magnanimous, serious, pensive yet open.
Eyad was jailed twice and tortured by Arafat’s secret police in the mid 1990s, a punishment for exposing his regime’s human rights abuses. Arafat had first tried to buy him, offering him a position in his Authority. Eyad refused, preferring to remain independent. Then Arafat tried to demolish Eyad’s reputation, framing him by arranging for drugs to be found by security forces in Eyad’s office. It didn’t work, and was swiftly exposed as a fit-up. Then Arafat’s men tried to torture Eyad into submission and co-optation – he withstood it. Eyad explained, ‘This is how I won the respect of my community’. He consistently speaks out against human rights violations whether they are committed by Israelis or Palestinians, regardless of which faction or Authority.
As an authoritative and experienced psychologist, born and bred in his beloved Gaza, Eyad is an expert on Gaza’s psychological terrains. His appraisal of human agency, motivation and meaning-making spans generations of Palestinian struggle. His analysis is fresh, without dogma or political compromise, and based on an analysis of universals and always using a democratic, interdisciplinary, community-based, and grassroots approach.
His commitment to Palestinian unity and human rights, and his unshakable independence, has made him a figure of not just authority in Palestinian society, but trust – an increasingly rare yet vital building block of any movement or struggle. That people from all parties, classes and persuasions, both the powerful and the powerless, have sought his ear, and have confided in him, exposing their vulnerability and their pain, and delved with him into the ‘why’ of what they do, has given him and the other psychologists who manage the Gaza Community Mental Health Programme, rich insights into the Palestinian identity and journey.
A Man on the Moon
We sit and watch TV together. Barak Obama the victorious new President of Israel’s biggest donor, and military and political ally, is making his way to his new seat of power. The TV beams his perfect black face smiling, and his multiple, earnest, black leather-gloved handshakes and waves to an ecstatic crowd. The stars and stripes are fluttering everywhere, the White House is looming ahead, as he walks with Michelle, flanked by security guards in suits wearing dark glasses and scowls. It’s an endless loop of reciprocal waving, smiling, and waving and smiling.
His elevation to president, and the First Black president of the United States, as we’re so tiredly reminded, is so seminal it’s likened to the first steps of the first man on the moon. But Obama, walking between a rejoicing crowd to his new White House security-bubble, in his long designer coat and black leather gloves, entering into the command of the most powerful army on earth, is a man on the moon. He’s a man on the moon to the people of Gaza. He’s living on another planet, compared to the lived reality in Gaza. The USA, and Washington’s corridors of power are a parallel universe, where the blood of children maimed and killed by US-made missiles, doesn’t speck the carpets. Barak Obama in Gaza is remote and unseeing, existent only in pixelated Technicolor, inches high, speaking an alien language, his ship never to touch down here in this broken, cut-off, silenced ghetto.
Not evil, but sick
The Gaza Community Mental Health project’s beach-side property was directly hit by Israeli fire – most probably from an Israeli naval vessel. The shelling caused no injuries but the property damage ran into thousands of dollars.
The massacres had a radicalising effect on the moderate Eyad. He told a group of visiting lawyers from the US Guild investigating war crimes, ‘I used to be a peace activist – no more. I don’t want peace with a country like Israel. This country has proven that it is living outside of the law. It does not respect human rights at all.
‘Israel is using sophisticated methods of targeted killing and psychological abuse. The second intifada was provoked by Sharon. Six people were killed on a Friday, then 13 in Nazareth, he wanted more emotions, more pain. They are not stupid, they are not evil, they are mentally ill and they need psychological treatment. 85% of the Israeli population supported the war and the atrocities in Gaza. They are projecting onto us, what the Nazis have done to them’.
It’s true that groups of Israelis flocked to Parash Hill close to Gaza during the massacres. They brought coffee machines, flasks, set up picnic tables, and settled in with Binoculars to watch the spectator sport that was the relentless bombardment of one and half million people. When one Israeli spectator was asked by Germany’s Spiegel Magazine ‘Don’t you think it gets worse bombing them?’ Real Estate Agent Karen Levy replied, ‘No I think that is the only solution. I think they should just clear off all the city, just take it off the ground. I’m a little bit fascist’.
TV pictures showed Israeli families drinking Pepsi and snacking on crisps looking on at Gaza, where just kilometres away, Palestinians were being burnt alive in their homes.
‘Israel doesn’t want peace’ states Eyad, flatly. ‘Peace is a threat to Israel, not war. War is helping the Israelis unite and expand. Israel wants to double the settler population in the West Bank.’
Eyad had been counselling child survivors of the massacres who had witnessed a parent or other family members die violently in front of them. ‘Children are conscious of the fact that their fathers cannot protect them. The trauma they have experienced has lead to a state of emotional detachment. They are talking to you as if it happened to someone else. There is a suppression of pain – they cannot integrate their experience into their personality. Over the short term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder will develop in the children. The long term effects will be felt in the next generation, also because of children responding to their parents’ behaviour.’
The ‘father’ who can never be humiliated
According to the GCMHP, during the first Intifada, 45% of children in Gaza said they’d witnessed the beating of their fathers by Israeli soldiers. In Eyad’s analysis, part of the reason for the rise of Hamas, and a more militant religion-oriented strategy of anti-occupation resistance, has been down to the generation of boys who witnessed the humiliation of their fathers, turning to the ultimate father for support – God – the ‘father’ who can never be humiliated. And in their own struggle, fi sabil Allah – in the way to God – if they are killed then they do not really die, but are granted eternal life. Martydom, beyond any strategic considerations, carries personal meaning and empowerment that challenges Israel’s extreme and escalating violence which seeks to tear meaning from life, and identity from the Palestinian people.
‘We will see more militancy’, says Eyad. He is absolutely sure about this. ‘We are seeing a cycle of deprivation, isolation, trauma, and violence, repeating itself and intensifying. Hamas may look like a moderate group – as Fatah once was – compared to future militant groups that are likely to arise in response to Israeli aggression’
The future does not look bright in Eyad’s opinion. And he is not alone in his gloomy analysis.
‘I fear that what has happened in Gaza is a rehearsal. And it succeeded. The international community didn’t stop Israel’s massacres. Maybe not next year, or the year after, but, in the future, many believe that the endgame is to uproot the people of Gaza and to transplant them to the Sinai Desert. And to give them blankets, tents, and clinics; and to have them live under Egyptian authority, living outside of a re-drawn map of Palestine. The plan for Gaza is another Nakba’.
The Headless Man
We couldn’t get him out of our minds. Both myself and Caoimhe kept re-playing the scene we had come to outside the Ahyli Hospital in Shijaye that January afternoon; the burnt body in the passenger seat of a crushed car smouldering, and the headless man lying on the ground beside it. Caoimhe had carefully gone about with a plastic bag wrapped round her hand, picking up the pieces of his skull and brain, collecting every shattered part for his burial, as a crowd looked on, arrested, agitated, horrified but frozen. The energy of it, and him, as we took him to Shifa hospital; we were sure that he had been someone important. Over the weeks, we concluded that we couldn’t keep referring to him as ‘the headless man’ we needed to dignify him with a name but we didn’t have one. So he became ‘Abu Abattall’ – ‘Father of heroes’ – we didn’t know what else to call him.
We’d asked medics, we’d asked friends, nobody seemed to know his name. I went back to Shifa, where we’d first brought him. I was advised to ask at the morgue. Previously overflowing with mutilated bodies, and mobbed by traumatised relatives, it was now comparatively silent. I walked in around midday, to see a man standing in the entry hall. ‘Do you work here?’ I asked him. He looked and me, and I saw his eyes were wide and pained. ‘My daughter, my daughter was knocked down by a car. She was on her way home from school. She’s dead’. I glanced down and saw he had a small dusty pink rucksack in his hand. Tears were brimming in his eyes. ‘Allah yerhammha’ I said, ‘God rest her soul’. Ordinary life, with its own deaths-by-accident, and loss un-related to the occupation, was carrying on, carrying its own tragedies.
Indeed, the same pain and social pathologies affect people here as they do in the West. Domestic violence fuelled by unemployment, financial stress, and disempowerment. The pleasure-pain of unrequited love and infidelity, as well as ‘halal’ love gone wrong and the old fashioned heartbreak that goes with it.
There are the difficult in-laws and annoying neighbours, family feuds and fall-outs, and people getting hustled in business transactions and personal purchases. A friend recently bought a new living room furniture set and nearly had a fist-fight with the buyer of his old set who was trying to stiff him on their agreed price. Their heated argument in the street threatened to involve all the neighbours as they gathered to see both men square up chest to chest, swearing by God, to keep to the price, to accept the new price, to be honest, to be fair, all laced with ‘brother’ ‘uncle’, and blessings spiced with hints of threat.
There are young women with eating disorders. I could barely recognise Ayat* a young woman I know from the North, when I saw her recently after a break of a few weeks. Her weight had ballooned. Her husband told me balefully, ‘I don’t know what to do – she’s like this, one moment thin, too thin, the other larger and depressed. She is not comfortable with herself. She is not comfortable with food’.
There are the drug-addicted – to prescription drugs or hashish or harder – all available in Gaza. Users remain secretly tranqulized into a snug-bubble stupor; doped up and merry with it, keeping a soft buffer between the harsh reality of life under siege and one’s own damaged, bored, self.
Back to the morgue….And from the morgue to the archives, and from the archives to the registrar of admissions, who finally has an answer for me. ‘I think its Mahmoud al Rifi. That’s who you’re looking for. He was shot down by an Apache. He was in the resistance’
We finally have a name.
Through degrees of separation, through friends asking friends asking locals, we finally manage to get an address. It’s a Saturday, early evening. Outside its dark and cold and raining. The streets are wet and slick. Driving through Jabalia Camp to Tuffah, everything seems to be dripping and seeping; the rickety market-stalls on wheels are collecting roof-fulls of rain sagging in the middle like a body asleep in a hammock. The garbage of the streets - rotten fruit and vegetables and knotted plastic bags of trash - is getting mushy in the wet. The soaked grey tenements and blocks look greyer in the power-cut gloom. Gas-lamps glow orange in darkened shop-fronts and random windows, the occasional generator-lit sweets or kebab shop burst colour and bustle and plastic flowers into the otherwise mawkish and dripping streets. We drive through it all, stopping off to buy a gift of biscuits at a noisy cookie shop on Wahede Street.
When we get there we get the wrong building, and have to try along at another apartment. We buzz the intercom. ‘Is this the home of the martyr Mahmoud al Rifi?
This time we’re on the right track. Our friend talks to the voice crackling on the intercom, explaining who we are. We’re welcomed and buzzed up the stairs. The anticipation is electric – we would finally be putting a face and a man to the body.
We’re welcomed in by a man in his late forties. He’s agile, serious and capable looking. He greets us heartily, if not a bit confused by our relationship to his brother? As soon as we enter the living room, we see a martyr poster up on the wall. It shows a young, short-haired, closely-shaven man. He’s unbelievably handsome. His serene but stern face is flanked by six images of young martyrs’ faces in cubes, some bearded, all wearing Hamas green headbands and expressions of defiance. Our hearts sink. It’s not him.
The man who welcomed us turns out to be Mahmoud’s father. We bless Mahmoud’s memory to the family and express our condolences but have to admit pretty quickly and cringingly that actually, this is not the man we were looking for.
We wince at the mistake and apologise for dredging up further grief, but his father – now joined by his wife, and sons who are curious about their new visitors – insists we stay and drink tea, and that we hear about his son and what he achieved.
Mahmoud Mouin Ishaq Al Rifi was18-years-old, and unmarried when he died. He had joined the Al Qassam elite unit at the age of 17. He had been an exemplary student and after completing his studies to High School level, he joined the Hamas-lead Gazan Police Force.
Mahmoud left his home on January 2nd 2009. He had concealed himself in a tunnel inside the al-Rayes mountain –a large hill close to the border with ’48.
There he had remained concealed for three days, drinking sips of water, and sucking on limes to keep him self alert. He kept in close radio contact with his superiors. On January 5th, when the time was right, he emerged to mount his attack from behind enemy lines, opening fire on an Israeli commando unit. He apparently succeeded in capturing two soldiers during the ambush, according to Hamas sources.
The story goes that he communicated his feat over his radio. It isn’t clear how long he had the soldiers for, but Israeli helicopter gun ships were able to locate him – either through their own surveillance drones or due to the tracking device all Israeli soldiers are equipped with in order facilitate detection in the event of capture – and they terminated him and, according to Palestinian sources, his Israeli captives too.
By January 5th, the Qassam Brigades website was reporting that two Israeli Soldiers had been captured. The Israeli Defence Forces denied this, accusing Hamas of engaging in psychological warfare intended to demoralise the Israeli public. ABC News reported in January 26th that a lieutenant-colonel of the elite Golani unit told his men, "You must avoid at all cost that one of you be captured alive by Hamas, even if that means blowing yourself up with your grenades." Officially, a total of ten Israeli soldiers were killed in the 22-day attack – six of them by Palestinian fighters and four by ‘friendly fire’ according to Israeli Human Rights Group B’Tselem. 336 soldiers were wounded. Three Israeli civilians were killed by Grad and Qassam rocket fire.
We go into another room, us women all together. Mahmoud’s mother talks about the pride she has in her son’s sacrifice. She’s in her early 40s, a passionate, dignified, strikingly beautiful woman. Her voice is hoarse but melodic. She talks about Mahmoud’s gentleness, his kindness, his helpful attitude to everyone, his selflessness. She gives thanks to God in almost every sentence, but falters, overwhelmed in her memories and breaks down into tears, easily, before gathering herself back up over the raw edge of her grief, and re-asserting herself again in front of us. She shows us photos of Mahmoud on the family computer. There’s Mahmoud sitting in the garden having a BBQ in the sunshine, hanging out, sitting in teen-clothes on a plastic chair, just like any other 18-year-old. She takes us through them all, proudly, glowingly
It’s time for Salaht al Maghreb – evening prayer. Mahmoud’s mother and our friend Om Mohammed** stand together with their eyes closed and begin to pray. Mahmoud’s mother prays out loud, invoking and intoning the name of God precisely and passionately, her throaty voice rejoicing through each utterance, rhythmically, hypnotically. Om Mohammad smiles in her prayer along side her, impressed by her new companion’s bold dedication and immersion in devotion, aloud and touching.
Prayer, aside from its’ five-times-a-day forms, is also woven into almost every expression and communication between people here. God invoked in a hundred daily interactions. Allah ya Tikolaefiye – God give you health and take your rest, said as a thankyou, as a sign of respect; Inshallah – if God wills it, also an Arabic form of the Castellano ‘Manana’; Allah yerhammu – to bless a dead soul; Allah ma’ek – God with you; SubhanAllah – said in awe, or surprise for ‘the grace or glory of God’; and Masha Allah – in response to plenty or beauty and to deter jealousy.
The language we’ve learned doesn’t reflect our religion – we’re not Muslim – but even non-Muslims speak the language that regulates and facilitates and soothes social interaction, keeps the mentality one of being part of a community, a family, Halto auntie, ammu uncle, ohti my sister, akhi my brother. There’s a recurring daily affirmation that life is a gift, that there’s something bigger than us, whether it’s God or a human collective, and there’s a deference and humility that isn’t limited to Islam but a consequence of the prominence and historical linguistic and cultural integration of Islam as a lived way of life for many here. We take on the language and principles of it, if not the religion chapter and verse.
Back in the main guest-reception room we stop in front of a poster bearing 71 faces. It’s a collective shaheed (Martydom) poster for the Tuffah area. ‘The first twenty were fighters’ points out Mahmoud’s father, ‘The rest were all civilians’. There are at least 15 children depicted, some of them marked only by the drawing of a rose. All died in a neighbourhood made up of just a few blocks and streets.
We bid our farewells and promise to come back. Stepping into the darkness, we make our way back to an electricity-less apartment and an insomnia hanging by a question mark. So who was the headless man?
We finally have a lead on ‘Abu Abtaal’. Abu Qusay, a Gazan Internal Security Manager knows who we’re looking for. ‘It’s Nasser Al-Saifi’, he tells us. But it’s sensitive. It turns out he was a high-ranking Hamas military leader. Abu Qusay co-ordinates security for VIPs and foreign delegations in Gaza. A father of six, he has worked as a security guard and police officer for the past 14 years, including a stint as the personal body-guard for the late Yasser Araft’s wife Suha. Abu Qusay had been participating in a meeting in the Presidential Compound in Gaza City when Operation Cast Lead’s first day of bombardment began. He was buried under rubble when an F16 struck the building. He survived the attack, gasping awake in Shifa Hospital covered in dust and surrounded by corpses and the wounded.
Now, bearing little more than a scar on his forehead, he was driving us to the old neighbourhood of Sabra, a suburb of Gaza City known to be a Hamas strong-hold. It’s a grey afternoon. We pass a newly-erected colour billboard depicting Qassam Brigade fighters in Balaclavas, launching Katyushas at an Israeli settlement – a cluster of orange-roofed houses frozen in the sights of a target
We drive through streets newly decorated with flags and posters of the fallen. We wonder if one bares the face of the headless man.
We arrive at a humble house, it turns out that Nasser’s wife Maha* isn’t home. First we stand in the yard, while Abu Qusai talks to some friends we look up at the walls of the grey block decorated with bulbous Arabic script. A young boy arrives, a cousin of Nasser’s and says he’ll take us upstairs to wait for Maha to come home. Abu Qusai leaves us, his job done, and we trot upstairs to sit in her living room. Some of Nasser’s children, sisters, neighbours and aunt join us.. Maha, a teacher at a local school, is still at work. One of Nasser’s sister’s lost a teenage son in the massacres. Two young, prim and religious women come over, they’re social workers, coming to check on the health of the children – two of Nasser’s kids have learning difficulties – and they tell us calmly that they are traumatised.
When Maha arrives, it’s like there's a welcoming party, awaiting her return with eagerness and apprehension. Slightly amused by us all, she greets us gently, her sunny, round and kind face smiling. She excuses herself to immediately take on making coffee, and feeding her newborn son, before sitting down amongst us, intrigued. Everyone is amazed that we have a connection to Nasser
They want to know what happened, the final moments. Before beginning, Caoimhe attempts to discern how much they know. It turns out that Nasser was in the passenger seat of the car. And again, we realise we’re on the wrong track. Nasser is not the headless man. But he had been with him when they were hit.
Maha and the family want details, but Caoimhe wants to spare them the pain of the truth, of Nasser’s desecrated, faceless body, and the smell of his burnt flesh. She tries to ascertain, subtly, as to whether they had seen his body before burial, and when it seems that they haven’t she concurs with their hopes, that he was badly injured but at peace somehow, that there had been some scrap of dignity about his death.
So who had been driving?
Who finally was the headless man?
‘Yes, he lived down the road from here’, said Maha, ‘They had just begun to get to know eachother. His name is Hashem al Hatou’.
Nasser had been a teacher and a Political leader high up within Hamas. After having spent many days at home, he’d gone out to the mosque to pray and, afterwards, to fix the family’s Babour gas stove that they had cooked on during the attacks. Hashem was a recent, but close friend. They had met through the mosque and had begun to spend a lot of time together. Hashem had given Nasser a lift home from the Mosque, stopping along the way to pick up Nasser’s oldest son and drop him at a friend’s before the attack.
You shouldn’t love me so much
We’re invited to stay for dinner downstairs in Maha and Nasser’s ground floor flat. They’re a poor family with meagre possessions. Vegetables are borrowed from relatives upstairs and a couple of shekels are hastily pressed into the hand of one of the children to pop out and bring Hommous and Foul.
We eat downstairs in a large room with bare grey walls and yellow woven mats on a concrete floor. A spread prepared byNasser’s sisters contains mashed and fried corned beef, Hummous and foul, small bowls of finely chopped cucumber and tomato and chilli pepper salad, falafels, fried eggs with tomatoes, mashed aubergine paste (Mutabaal) and warm fresh discs of bread. We sit munching together under the bright strip-lights with the kids romping around mischievously plucking morsels from the sidelines of the feast.
Afterwards we go and sit with Maha in her and Nasser’s bedroom. It’s a windowless, grey room, brightened with plastic flowers, a golden tissue box, a large mirrored dresser adorned with a few necklaces, a hairbrush, and photos of the once happy couple
Her eldest son, aged around 16, and her younger daughter come in and we sit together on her and Nasser’s large, satin sheeted bed. ‘The boy only talks about dying now’, says Maha looking at him. ‘He wishes he had been with his father when he died’.
Maha shows us photos of Nasser before he became religious. He’s tall, moustached and handsome, she’s tiny and beaming beside him. We pore over photo after photo of their faces playful and brimming with love.
‘This is where we got to know eachother’, she says, shyly, looking about the plain room and down at the double bed we’re sitting on. ‘My wedding bed is so lonely without him now’.
‘You know he used to say to me, you shouldn’t love me so much’. She says, wiping away tears, ‘Don’t love me so much. Because he knew he would be killed, he knew it was coming’.
It’s getting late and the family ask us to sleep over. We beg off, explaining we have medical training with the Red Crescent Society in Khan Younis the following morning. It means waking up at 6.30am to get a shared taxi from Shifa Hospital to take us to Amal Hospital (Hope Hospital) in Khan Younis to be ready for our lesson at 9am. Three times a week myself, Caoimhe and prolific bloggers and Teflon-nerved activists Eva Bartlett and Sharyn Lock were studying Basic Trauma Life Support (BTLS) Life-saving skills we were learning in reverse, training on decrepit dummies, some without arms, after having worked on the real flesh and blood thing during the massacres.
Our course material is from the US, and depicts images of ‘a violent situation’ as an aggro looking middle-aged man carrying a plastic bag just back from the Off Licence standing between two police officers. Patient care depicts perfect blonde child casualties being carried into ambulances on cushioned smoothly-folding trolleys, tucked up in tartan blankets and smiling.
We need to go but promise to come back. An older relative of Nasser drives us back to Sharyn’s apartment by the sea. He’s got footage of the incident on his mobile and we watch it. It’s a few minutes of jerky images of paramedics trying to force open the soldered car door to get to Nasser, burning, and then there is a close up of Hashem on the ground and then being carried and the sound of sirens and screams and groans of bystanders in the background.
The wall-to-wall loneliness we felt in Maha’s home stays with us and silences us, back in Sharyn’s apartment. Sleep doesn’t come easy, but we know who Abu Abtaal is now. And the next journey we make to ‘put him back together’ will finally take us to him.
Hashem Al Hatou
The taxi driver doesn’t know where to take us. He knows about Hashem, and the gruesome way he was killed, but has to stop and ask in a shop on the way about where his home is. He gets the right directions and we’re off and curving and swerving down the side-streets of Sabrah. It’s early evening, and it’s raining, again.
We get dropped off at a large sandy-coloured building, close to a steel works. The taxi driver makes off, leaving us outside a heavy metal door. We ring the bell.
‘Who is it?’ asks a young voice.
‘We’re here to see your mother’, we say. The door clicks open and a young boy of about 10 is standing there.
‘She’s in the hospital’, he says
‘Is there anyone else home?’ we ask.
‘Yes, come up’ he says.
He leads us up two flights of stairs and into a large reception room with thick red curtains. It’s empty save for a glass coffee table and three long, golden settees arranged in a ‘u’.
As we sit down a young woman – no older than 20, dressed in a bright blue jilbab comes to greet us. After we explain who we are and why we’ve come, she tells us that she’s the wife of Mohammad, one of Hashem’s sons. She explains that Hashem’s wife is in Shifa Hospital, having just had a gynaecological operatgion, and won’t be back until much later. Another young woman, aged around 18, with huge dark, blue-eyeshadow made-up eyes comes in, carrying her baby son. She’s also a wife of another of Hashem’s sons.
They bring us cookies laced with pink and bright green icing and glasses of sweet amber tea.
The second, dark-eyed wife looks from Caoimhe to me back to Caoimhe again. ‘Sulliaht ala al nabbi intum hellween’, shesays, wide-eyed, ‘Prayers on my prophet you two are pretty’.
We set aside our tea and start to recount what we saw that day.
‘When you picked him up, did he smell of the sweet smell of martyrdom, did he smell of roses?’ asks the wife in the blue dress.
I remember the medic who carried him with me gagging repeatedly in the ambulance and nearly throwing up at the morgue. I had had a terrible cold and couldn’t smell a thing. I want to say to her, ‘Well, no’, but Caoimhe catches my eye before I can respond.
We keep tight lipped. They don’t need to know any different and they should have the most serene memories possible given the extreme violence of his death.
Both girls begin to talk about Hashem.
He was 45-years-old and he wasn’t a member of any resistance organisation or faction. He was the director of a successful steel company. Before the imposition of the siege he had been trading with Israeli companies and visiting Israel on a regular basis. His company had been one of the biggest in Gaza and he had helped build tower blocks, factories, homes, and Mosques. He had been very involved in the construction of a local mosque.
He was a Hafiz of the Q’ran – this meant he could recite the Q’ran in its entirety – and a respected Islamic scholar who regularly taught younger members of the Umma (Islamic community), the Q’ran and about social values and conduct at his local Mosque.
As an independent figure, unaffiliated to any faction, he was respected for his service and commitment to the community. His neutrality meant he would often be called upon to intervene in family and political feuds, as a fair and impartial arbiter with no vested interests to swerve his judgement. He was trusted and respected.
As a grandfather he doted on his grandchildren, spending as much time with them as he could. He especially loved to tickle their faces with his beard, embracing them and gently nuzzling their heads, and making them guffaw with laughter and delight.
The bang of the front door announces the return of Hashem’s son Mohammed. He comes into the room and is startled by our presence. But he recognises me instantly, from footage shot on a mobile phone of the immediate aftermath of the attack. He hadn’t witnessed the attack himself but had come to the scene later and seen the burnt car but hadn’t recognised it. It was only later that he was told that his father had been inside it.
He shows me shaky footage, different from that which we’d already seen, that shows me and another medic carrying his father’s body, expressionless, a load-and-go case to be swiftly manouvered into the back of the ambulance. Un-recorded is the fact that I know that when I saw him, and we rolled him onto the stretcher, and went to hoist him up, that I shouted ‘Allah O’Akbar’ as I lifted him, for strength, for courage, in defiance. And because there was nothing else I could say.
It’s a cry often heard in the aftermaths of bombings, and attacks, heard raw and live, cutting through the suspended collective breath that hangs over the carnage of radical severance of lives into death; it can be heard clearly in footage on TV screens, and crackling over Radio-waves in reports from Gaza to Baghdad to Kandahar to anywhere where people live and die violently.
Reliving his witness of his father’s death widens Mohammad’s eyes as he talks. ‘I know many people here have been killed…but, the Way my father was killed, and to see it, to see him like that’. He looks away, wincing, unblinking, ‘It was more than I could bear. I didn’t want this to be my last memory of him’.
Mohammad goes on. ‘And he wasn’t part of any resistance. He was a religious man and lived his religion and served the community and everyone respected him. He didn’t even know Nasser, only from the mosque, and he had given him a lift in his car.’
Mohmmad takes us to see his father’s Martyr poster.
‘He wasn’t part of any faction’ explains Mohammad. ‘Some factions wanted to claim him as their own, but in the end, religious groups made posters to honour him. This one was made by the local mosque’.
And we finally see him. His face, him whole.
He has a slight face, thin, long, with eyes that look alert but emotional, worried even. He has grey hair and a grey beard. He’s wearing a white Jizdashe (robe) and a white knit Kufi skull cap.
We look at him in silence for what feels like forever.
‘Allah yerhammu’. God rest his soul. We say it again and again, softly.
*not her real name
**not her real name