I wasn’t going to write this blog post. As a Palestinian, this is something personal to me that I wasn’t sure if sharing with my readers would be the best idea.
But I wanted to share my experiences of travelling to the Gaza Strip for a few reasons. Politics aside, I wanted the world to know that behind these complex political and ideological issues – there is a reality of life that isn’t often shared. The reality of ordinary human beings who live their daily lives the best way they can, considering the lack of basic necessities, that we in the western world take for granted.
Millions of people travel to Israel and those who are fortunate enough to travel to Palestine would have travelled to West Bank. No one goes to the Gaza Strip, mostly due to the fact that Israel imposes a blockage on the territory, restricting the movement of goods and people in and out.
The only way a foreigner can get into Gaza is if they apply for a special visa /travel permit at the Israeli or Egyptian embassy. To have a visa granted, there needs to be a very specific reason as to why they are travelling to Gaza – e.g. diplomatic or humanitarian missions, or very important business reasons. In other words, they are not allowed to physically travel there for tourism or private purposes.
I have a Gazan ID card, so we usually go in through the Rafah border (Egypt). The whole process of getting into Gaza is extremely tedious and unpredictable. There was one time we visited and we were stuck in the border for 3 nights!
Home to 2 million people, Gaza is a small piece of land, roughly 40km from North to South and 6km from West to East. Its geographically separated from the West Bank by Israeli territory.
Of course, I had to be very selective with the pictures I put up due to safety concerns but here are a few things I got up to in my one month travel back home:
- Visiting Family
The main reason i go back is to visit my family. Life over there is all about gatherings and meeting with your friends and family – we would go from house to house meeting relatives, having SO much food and just enjoying each others company – people in the Strip are simple, friendly, hospitable and warmhearted. There is also a sense of trust and solidarity between neighbours and random people which i love. If you do visit Gaza though, expect inconveniences like power cuts and water issues a few times a day.
- Reyad El-Alami Centre for Palestinian Heritage
The IWAN Centre of the Islamic University in Gaza and the Palestinian office for Development and Education signed the agreement for restoring the ancient House of Reyad El Alami. Uncle Reyad was my mum’s uncle and he has the oldest house in Gaza. My uncle took us on a tour of the museum. The gentleman in the photograph in the second picture is of my great-grandad – a very powerful man in Gaza.
- Gaza Old Town
The Old City is the central part of Gaza and is about 1.6 square km. It is roughly divided into two quarters; the northern Daraj Quarter (Muslim Quarter) and the southern Zaytun Quarter (Jewish/Christian Quarters). Its incredible that the structures that remain dates from the Mamluk and Ottoman era, with some building being built on top of earlier structures. The older buildings uses the ablaq style of decoration which features alternating layers of red and white masonry, prevalent in the Mamluk era. The Daraj Quarter has two main points of attraction – The Great Mosque of Gaza and the Market.
- Omari Mosque – The Great Mosque of Gaza
The Omari Mosque is the oldest and biggest mosque in the Strip and was built by the Mamluks in the 14th century. What was really interesting is that it incorporated elements and features of the religious buildings that was there from previous epochs. e.g. St John Basilica
- Qaysariya and Al Zawiya markets
Adjacent to the mosque above and bordered north of Al-Wihda Street, there are two main markets that are very popular in the Old City. The first market is the Qasariya market, also known as the Gold Market. Many Gazans come here to buy the dowry for the bride before a wedding. The market is a narrow alley with vaulted roofs and shiny windows.
The second market is the Zawiya market which is an open-air souq in Gaza where you can find everything – from vegetables to household items. You can even buy cattle from here! This place is a heaven for Palestinian merchants. Please do remember to wear conservative clothing if you come here!
- Qasr al-Basha
Otherwise known as Al- Pasha Palace, the elegant manor used to be the residence of local Mamluk and Ottoman governors. When Palestine was mandated under the British, it was transformed into a police station in which the cells and execution chamber can be visited today. Now, its a public archaeological museum with artefacts found in the Strip. It was a really interesting visit.
There are plenty of options for every wallet: from street food and cafés to posh restaurants. My family and i used to love visiting Lighthouse cafe which had a great atmosphere, music and nice views.
- Gaza Beach and the Port of Gaza
All beaches are public in Gaza and can get very crowded. In the summer, you can see Gazans swim and fish despite the sea being polluted with sewage water. For most of the 2 million people in this overcrowded strip of land – the beach and sea are the only affordable form of recreation. Israeli-led blockade prevents spare parts from being obtained to carry out essential repairs. This is not helped by the daily power cuts and fuel shortages which means that they have little equipment to actually make it work. My grandma used to love coming to the beach and one of my last memories of her is of me sitting on her lap while she’s telling me stories. This is a picture of my cousins and i having shisha and coffee on the beach.
You can also walk along the pier to take nice photos of the traditional fishing boats with the city in the background.
- Diwan Ghazza
My friend from university told me that i should meet her friend, Yasmeen in Gaza. I am so glad i did because not only did i meet such an inspiration woman that i am still close with today, but she also opened up my eyes to what the new generation are doing in Gaza. Yasmeen and her friends were fed up with the way the world views Gaza in the media and the negative aspects of it. The media disregards the beautiful, the educated and the inspirational. According to Yasmeen, “Gaza is a city no less capable than other cities, and the fact that we have gone through so much should add to our credit. Gaza breeds thinkers, and the only thing it teaches them is that they should do the thinking themselves. There are no cultural centers, theatres, cinemas or –updated- public libraries in Gaza, but that wasn’t going to stop us”. So they all set up Diwan Ghazza – a community of young thinkers where they have a book swap club and attend different cultural events in Gaza. I have no words guys… this is truly amazing.
I am so grateful that i met Yasmeen and she allowed me to see just how mentally strong young Gazans are. Given their extremely difficult and unbearable situation, they put their efforts and energy into education and learning. I get butterflies just thinking about it, but this is such an amazing initiative and i pray that it continues to grow and inspire people. It would be so easy to fall into violence in such a dire situation – but they don’t. They continue fighting the occupation by other means – I love it!
- Horse-Riding with my cousin!
My grandad treated my sister and i to a horse-riding lesson at Faisal Equestrian Club, Gaza’s only riding club. I had no idea they even did horse-riding in Gaza! Despite the Israeli blockade and its awful economic consequences – its actually quite a popular sport. My sedo explained how the prophet (SAW) taught us there are three sports that we should learn and perfect – horse-riding, archery and swimming. He explained how its Arab honour to be able to ride a horse and is a huge part of our culture.
Faisal Equestrian Club started with a few Arabian horses that were bred in Gaza but then other horses from Egypt and Syria were later imported through the tunnels. My cousin, Mai Al-Alami is a Palestinian show jumper and is so talented and what she does.
- Bayara (vineyard)
My memories of Gaza is usually revolved around our Bayara, which is similar to a vineyard with a house and swimming pool. We would have chickens in the hut where we’d collect the eggs every morning, and collect different fruits from the tree. The whole family would gather here in the weekend to have a BBQ, swim in the pool and chat. I have such fond memories of this place and just really appreciated the simplicity of life here.
Fast Facts (according to the UN):
– The population of Gaza is 2 million, with over 50% under 18.
– 38% of Gazans live in poverty.
– 26% of the Gazan workforce, including 38% of youths, is unemployed.
– The average wage declined by over 20% in the past six years.
– 54% of Gazans are food insecure and over 75% are aid recipients.
– 35% of Gaza’s farmland and 85% of its fishing waters are totally or partially inaccessible due to Israeli military measures.
– 50-80 million litres of partially treated sewage are dumped in the sea each day.
– Over 90% of the water from the Gaza aquifer is undrinkable.
– 85% of schools in Gaza run on double shifts.
– About one-third of the items in the essential drug list are out of stock.
– Since the beginning of 2010, 64 Palestinian civilians have been killed and 621 injured by Israeli forces; over 60% of casualties occurred in the access-restricted areas. Another 60 civilians were killed and 137 were injured in tunnel-related accidents.
Have you ever visited Palestine? What are your thoughts?