Personal essay: When the sea comes to Gaza

As war rages, a daughter turns to her family’s past in her search for meaning

The author’s father during a trip back to his family’s village, Barbara, in the Gaza Strip.
Courtesy Sousan Hammad

Growing up, I never summered in Gaza. Whenever we left Texas as kids, it was for Amman, where my mother had lived after leaving Jerusalem in 1956.

The mystery of Gaza was always associated in my mind with my father, whom I never really knew.  It was a symbol of the unknown, the faraway place where he lived as a child after his family’s village, Barbara — on the northern outskirts of the coastal city now called Ashkelon — was destroyed by Israel in 1948. Later, Gaza became a feeling that something was being kept half-hidden from us when, just after I turned 9, my father returned there to live out his life.  

It wasn’t until my early 20s that I wanted a clearer understanding of why he left us. During a trip to the Palestinian territories one summer, I traveled from Ramallah to the Erez Crossing to see him, only to be detained for 15 hours and eventually denied entry. Seven months later, my father died. That was my only attempt to go to Gaza.

Nearly a decade has passed since then. As the latest siege and shelling of the Gaza Strip goes on, I’ve come back to my relationship with Gaza — not only for the indignation I feel over the catastrophe that is taking place but also because of the effect his departure had on me.

Only this time I decide to move past the ghostly relationship I have with my father and his other family and mourn for Gaza.

The author’s father’s house, shelled but not destroyed, in Beit Lahiya in the Gaza Strip.
Courtesy Sousan Hammad

I had never seen my father’s house until now. A cousin sends a photograph of the house, which my father had built after remarrying, in Beit Lahiya — shelled but not destroyed in the second week of Israel’s invasion. Via text message, my older siblings begin to exchange memories of the house, as when people do after a common friend dies. One of my brothers remembers how every day my father sat outside on one of the cluttered balconies, smoking his cherished menthol cigarettes. Somehow, the photograph of his house sparks a collective mourning.

It was the first time I thought about my father’s death in a long time. But I don’t have any pleasant memories to share, so I stay quiet. As I look back at the charred window of the house and try to make sense of everything, I begin to feel resentful. It’s not a bad feeling but one of undisguised jealousy — a jealousy of not having any memories of that balcony, as my older brothers and sisters do, and of not knowing what the house looked like from inside.

As more and more family details are uncovered in our family messaging group, I find myself getting upset by not knowing which cousin is which and by only now hearing stories of my aunts and uncles. Their names often enter the void of a virtual family tree my brothers and sisters have constructed in our back-and-forth texting. They check in with one another daily to ascertain the safety of our cousins, but names whirl in and out, and I start to feel overwhelmed.

It is July, and we are watching Gaza from our screens, talking and texting as towns are ablaze. Me from Paris, my brother from Dubai, a sister in Amman and my mother and six other siblings in Houston. One day, my phone beeps with a message from my sister saying one of our half-sisters, J., is stuck in Gaza. “She’s nine months pregnant and can’t get out.” I ask where she is. “Somewhere near Rafah,” my sister says. Years ago, J.’s family (my father’s new wife and three other children) left Gaza to live in Amman, where my father had a second house built.

My father had more children, but I don’t even know what they look like. As the youngest of his first family, I’m the only one who has never met them. Before the Gaza airport was destroyed, my older brothers and sisters traveled frequently to visit my father, who was often sick. I always stayed behind. 

The author’s father holding his two oldest children on a Gaza beach in 1973.
Courtesy Sousan Hammad

Growing up, I would think often of Gaza. What attracted my father back? Was it the Mediterranean shore? What kinds of lives do people live in that overcrowded and tortured place? Why did it mean so much to him? Out of curiosity or perhaps nostalgia for a memory I have no access to, I message my mother to ask if she has any family photos from Gaza. Several days pass before she finds and sends a series of blurry photographs. One faded shot is of my father carrying my two oldest siblings on the beach, waves curling behind a man who is shirtless and smiling. Another photograph is of several children splashing in the sea, back when the sea belonged to Gaza and when drones didn’t buzz in the sky. It was 1974, the first trip back east after my parents moved to Chicago in the late ’60s, where my father finished graduate school to become an engineer. They were summering in Gaza.

Paris is manicured and beautiful, but the city can smell unpleasant, especially after it rains. The casserole of rainwater mixed with pollution that wafts through my open window pushes me into Gaza again. It’s hard to imagine, but I think of the way places like Shujaiya and Khuza’a must smell as I start to pack my life into boxes that will be shipped to Brooklyn in New York. My pantry is filled with food and spices I can’t bear to throw away. I refresh Gaza on my screen, news of more tragedy.

I look back at the food sitting on rows of shelves, thinking about all the stomachs that must be droning with hunger at sunset. It is Ramadan, after all.

The phone, which I’ve now placed on silent, lights up. My brother shares a photo of our cousins gathering to break their fast. I see five small cucumbers, a couple of slices of bread the children are holding and four tomatoes. There are nine people, sitting patiently and waiting to eat.

July nearly comes to an end, and J., the eldest of my half-siblings, gives birth to a boy. One of my sisters writes a celebratory post on Facebook saying, “In Gaza — my sister brings life back in.” I look at the baby, closely inspecting the words “my sister” and search for physical similarities. But I don’t find any. 

The author’s family summering in Gaza. Her mother is on the far left.
Courtesy Sousan Hammad

Every place has its reputation. For Gaza, it means you are tough. That’s why I didn’t think the story of my aunt carrying a switchblade in her bra was embarrassing. I thought it was funny, and I thought it would be nice to share experiences of my Gaza family, tales that weren’t filled with the typical rhetoric of how “steadfast” and “resilient” Palestinians in Gaza are. My mother thought otherwise. When I shared the story of how our aunt once threatened to take out the switchblade on my grandmother, she asked me to take the story down from Facebook. “You’re making your father’s family look bad, she said. My sister came to my defense, writing, “But Mom, Amti carried her lipstick in there too. Lots of women carried things in their bra — it was like a purse!” 

Even though I can’t repeat their names without consulting my phone, I’m beginning to learn more about my aunts, uncles and cousins. There are still some gaps in the narrative, but the door is opening, and rather than shut it as I’ve done in the past, I leave it ajar.

I learn, for example, that it was my cousins who persuaded my father to return. “They told him he would become the patriarch of the family, and he believed it,” my brother says. “But things didn’t work out well for him in the end. Dad felt used.”

Somehow this is comforting. Not that my father was manipulated but that leaving Houston and his family was a decision he didn’t make on his own. I always knew he was never really happy after we moved to Houston from Saudi Arabia, but it’s difficult to say why, since I barely spoke with him even when he was around. Maybe he was too young to retire, or maybe it was because his businesses failed one after another. He was excited to have bought an entertainment ranch that we loved going to as kids. It was called Rock ’n’ R Ranch, and it had a swimming pool, bumper cars, mini golf and a catering team that cooked Southern-style barbecue. But he was conned out of a contract and lost it. What I do know is he was stubborn, because he did it again, opening a business he knew nothing about — this time a video store — only to see it fail.

Then one summer he said he was going to Gaza. Sometimes I think it was chronic depression that made him leave. Throughout my adolescent years I stayed angry with him, not because I missed him or felt betrayed but because I saw how it made my mother suffer. And for that, I still can’t forgive him.

The author’s older siblings swimming at a beach in Gaza in 1980.
Courtesy Sousan Hammad

Just when I’m starting to feel less physically drained, hoping this time Israel will finally stop dropping bombs on Gaza, it starts all over again. Tales of gloom have marked the months of July and August, more than anyone could be expected to take in.

Today it’s still hard to form an adequate idea of what the destruction has done to Palestinian men, women and children. I know that they are still suffering — my cousins, half-siblings and everyone included — and that the horrors involved in the devastation caused by Israel is a reality I will never know how to translate. I also know now that my father’s return there was based on a very personal experience, one from which I will never entirely emerge or understand but one that I can at least acknowledge. 

Gaza was my father’s home. It may still feel like an empty room to me, but there’s new life moving beneath it, and I’m beginning to search for things to fill it with.

Finally my thoughts are starting to move past the familial and toward a tangled understanding of what things will resemble after the apocalypse is over. I think about Gaza beyond the surname I share with a clan of Palestinians. Already my sister has plans for when the siege collapses. She has twin boys who are 2 years old. As I sit down to write, my phone buzzes with a message.  “Soon, my boys will be able to spend their summers in Gaza,” she says.

I write back, “I hope I can spend a summer there too.”

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