Wednesday, 14 January 2009

From an internet cafe to a living room in Gaza

At the internet cafe I used during my final day in Cairo, there was a racket. It's always a racket in there. Some teenagers yelling obscenities at each other while playing shoot'em-up games. A Somali shouting into his skype. But this time it was a grandmother and grandfather going wild via webcam to their family members in Gaza.

My instinct was to tell them to shut up - which never works, because the whole place looks at me like I am a little weird. So, I set my laptop up and sat in my usual corner, right next to them, and said nothing.

The grandmother was telling her grandchildren to raise their faces so she can see them better, she was sending kisses, praising their beauty, saying all manner of love-words to them. "Here is your grandpa," she told them after about five minutes of sheer emotion. The grandpa sat in front of the webcam and started giggling at his grandchildren; pure affection.

"Oh look, its the apple of my eye, Nadia. Say hello to Nadia," she told him. "Nadia, you beauty, you full moon, may God bring us together again. Keep safe darling always forever," he said.

Grandma took the headset. "Talal, my lovely darling boy. You are a man. Never be afraid. If you hear bombing, just hit your pillow. But don't be afraid. Do you hear me? You must resist and be patient. This evil will come to an end, and God will take care of you."

As grandma carried on talking, a few young men congregated around grandpa to ask after the family in Gaza. He started giving a small lecture on the conflict. Then his wife summoned him to the phone, and she went around the place apologising.

"I am sorry we've been so loud, I'm sorry we disturbed your peace," she told me.

"May God give you strength," I said.

"Thank you son, may God never show you days like these," she told me.

They ended the call with a storm of kisses and goodbyes.

The guy who manages the internet cafe got into conversation with grandpa, and soon they had fired up a map of Palestine/Israel. The guy was asking lots of questions and grandpa was patiently sharing with him.

"I, me, I wasn't a Gaza native. I was born in a place they call Askalon now. But my family moved to Gaza in 1948. This is where we've been since, but I myself am not really Gazan. Most Gazans are not from Gaza, they sought refuge there when Israel was declared."

"Gaza is not the West Bank, or is it?" asked the internet cafe guy.

"No, no, let me show you."

"But people say the Jews were good, like, they were ordinary people when they lived amongst us."

"Yes, when they lived amongst us they were fine," said grandpa.

"People say they were honest. If he gave you his word, he meant it," said the guy.

"In business, yes. In business, they are honest. But outside business, they're ho ho ho."

"Jews," said the guy.

"Look at what the Zionists did to us," said grandpa.

As I was leaving, the internet cafe guy told me - one Egyptian to another: "this conflict, you know, it's complex, so much detail, really complicated."

"No kidding!" I replied.

Grandpa was now chatting with two young women who had sought to show sympathy with him and his wife.

"May God strengthen you," I said to him by way of farewell.

"Thank you, son. Listen, Abdel-Nasser, you heard of him, right?" he asked.

"Of course," I said.

"You weren't even born, so you wouldn't know, but me, I was 14 in 1952, and I remember," he said as he pulled my jacket closer around my shoulders and straightened my shirt collar. He had green eyes, a red face, and a kind disposition. He smelt of either old cologne or old age. One eye was wide, looking straight at me, the other seemed tired. Yes, he smelt of old age.

"Nasser was surrounded in Faluga by the Israelis in 1948. And when his army unit was released, they went to Gaza, which is near Faluga. And from there back to Egypt. And Nasser said that it was after the siege of Faluga that he and his army fellows decided to launch the 1952 coup [disposing of King Farouk and leading to a full-blow revolution that transformed Egypt into a republic]. So you see, your 1952 revolution in Egypt is linked to Gaza," he said.

"That is true," I said and wished him goodnight.

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