Saturday, January 2, 2010

From One Police State to Another

December 31st
We missed the bus to the Commodore hotel this morning where most of the delegates are staying and a meeting about our schedule and coordination is taking place. We were stopped by the Hamas security forces when we tried to catch a taxi. A dark windowed SUV was provided complete with machine guns to take us to the Commodore hotel. Shades of El Arish all over again.
The meeting at the Commodore was still going on and it looked like nothing had been accomplished. Finally it was determined that even though Hamas had co-opted the Gaza Freedom March we would all go to and either march or watch. We felt very ambivalent about participating, after all we really wanted to meet the women from the women’s center where the mural was supposed to be installed and we only had 2 days to install. We were assured the all would be fine over and over again that the supplies were ready and that the march would be short and it would happen.

The March was not short. We were the only women in the march. It was a very small crowd of men and teenage boys; I think that there were 5-6 of them for every one of us, which would put the March attendance at between 600-700 not the 6,000 that has been reported.

Bill and I were fortunate to run into a High School English teacher, we walked slowly and had some very interesting and sweet conversations; he stayed with us and did a lot of translating so that we were able to speak with many people in the crowd. At the end of the parade there were any speeches in both Arabic and English, as expected, the government used it as a media event, and while we tried to contain the message we did a miserable job of it. Unfortunately I wandered too close to a live TV interview and got roped into being in the background when Tighe Barry on live Aljezerra made an incomprehensible statement contradicting all the peaceful efforts we had worked towards.

On return to the Commodore hotel we learned that in actuality they had not procured the supplies we needed to make the mural. In addition the woman I had been working with on the mural project was not going to be able to meet with me. The Commodore hotel was a big mess, the organizers had thought we would go out into the neighbor hood and get lunch for ourselves and then meet back in the afternoon for tours, Bill and I were to go to the site and get going on the mural. El Arish all over again, the Hamas security was insisting that we all eat at the hotel and they were not allowing anyone past the gates of the hotel. We had been given the services of Mond, a local young man who spoke English, but it would do us no good if we could not get out of the hotel. We convinced Mond that the only action was for Bill and us to just walk through the wall of security men and keep going, to ignore their protests and calls to stop and to just keep going. His job would be to hail a local taxi and come pick up us. It was tense, they did try to detain us, but we had had experience in El Arish and just went.

Mond was able to move us around Gaza City, we purchased the supplies needed and headed off to the site, which is when I found out that it was not going on a women’s center wall after all. The new site was the wall right outside the UN Relief Agency and across the street from the Muslim University. While not happy about this new turn of events there was not time to argue. The director the GAZA UN Relief Agency was very happy to meet me and excited about the mural. Bill and I set to work to the amusement of all the males watching. We had Hamas guard, UN security guards and a whole host of local boys watching. At one point in the process they had a lot of advice to give, but we did not understand what they were trying to convey, eventually they got frustrated with my ineptitude and took the tools from me and took over the job of thin setting the sections to the wall. In the mean time we discovered that all of my Arabic translation were incorrect, we decided to remove the Arabic all together and just go with a short Arabic Statement of “Free Gaza”. So 20 of the 25 sections were attached to the wall, the other five were going back to the hotel with me to get repaired. We had used up all of the thin set we had purchased, when I found out that the next day was the Holy day and that no stores would be open I could not help myself, I burst into tears. The UN agency workers who had been helping us were so moved by my distress that three of them whipped out cell phones and began calling to try to find some for me. This show of empathy and support was such an unexpected kindness that the tears turned to joy instead of anguish. But they could not tell the difference and were still in distress that I was crying. We were promised that the thin set would be there at 9:30 in the morning.

Our Hamas guards took us to our hotel where we changed clothes and boarded a bus for a New Year’s Eve party being held in our honor. The mood was one of excitement and joy; we had a great time mingling with the locals. At one point Bill and I left the party with a young woman named Hannar and her husband Yosef to walk the 2 blocks to the mural. I was amazed that we were able to leave with out the guards, the four of us walked arm in arm together chatting as we went, the moon was full, the air was warm, and the company was delightful.

We left the New Year’s Eve party right after walking Hannar and Yoself back with a promise to see each other again the next night. Bill went right to bed and I set myself up to go to work on fixing the panels that had incorrect Arabic writing on them, we even forgot to wish each other Happy New Year. I worked on the corrections until 3 a.m. I was joined by Hamas guards. They sat at my table with me drank tea and joked with each other, sporadically they practiced their English, I had the Mural book with me which they enjoyed looking through, asking the ages and availability of the women pictured in it. My daughter Liz was a big hit; they want me to bring her back to Gaza as she would make a very good wife. The later it got the more often they asked me when I was going to go to sleep, always it was when I finish! I later learned that they were not able to go to bed themselves until all of internationals went to bed. I finally finished at 3 a.m. apparently one of my compatriots got up at 5 a.m. I don’t feel too bad about this lack of sleep our Hamas keepers suffered; their presence has cost me many many new grey hairs!

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