A rare and incredibly moving piece of fiction from Gaza, from writer and activist Nayrouz Qarmout. In this short story, Nayrouz communicates the everyday experience of life in Gaza; where fear and horror collide with moments so full of life and love. Nayrouz also contributed to the PEN award-winning anthology The Book of Gaza, published by Comma Press in June.

Translated from the Arabic by Sarah Irving

As dawn breaks with the twittering of birds, she stands by the kitchen windowsill. Every day she greets the sunrise, absorbing through the window the radiance of the new day, the scents of the morning. But despite the mingling perfumes, fear invades the heart of Umm Ahmed.

Umm Ahmed stands by the window, meticulously washing her dishes, glasses and cutlery, escaping from the noises of aircraft and raids and bombs into the sound of water flowing from the tap. She contemplates the soap-bubbles on the glasses. The sunlight on the water droplets shimmers in her eyes, but her mind and heart are filled with images, with pictures of children consumed by shrapnel and fire. Tears run down Umm Ahmed’s cheeks and mingle with the sound of the water on the dishes.

She looks to the sky and sees far-off smoke, burning buildings. She jumps at the sound of an ambulance speeding, its tyres fighting the asphalt of the road, the paramedics inside. The radios in the street sing for the resistance. She talks to herself:

– See who died, you sons-of-bitches, hunting our children like birds…

The phone rings. Umm Ahmed dashes to it; her sister answers

– Hello.

– Hello. Are you OK?

– We’re good. Tell me how you’re doing?

– They’re bombing our neighbourhood, Umm Ahmed. I’m scared for the children.

– What are you waiting for? Get the children and bring them here. Our house is safe.

– OK. I’ll get the kids dressed and find a car to take us all.

– Take care, we’re waiting for you. God keep you.

Umm Ahmed looks at her son, Ahmed, and her daughters, Jenin and Jaffa. They’re sleeping deeply, after a month of the long days of war. She hasn’t closed the windows all night, for fear of explosions and shattering glass. They are sleeping on mattresses which she has dragged into the middle of the house, abandoning their rooms and beds to avoid some of the danger. But danger is everywhere, no matter where they go.

She switches on the UPS battery, which gives the house a little electricity during the continuous power cuts, so that she can watch the tragedies unfold on the TV. She flicks from channel to channel, watching not just the news bulletins but also savouring the experts, analysts and reporters guessing what the date might mark the end of the war. She mutters to herself:

– What’s the use in telling people they’re going to die? We know that.

Ahmed wakes up and rushes to his computer and mobile, checking his messages before he’s even wiped the sleep from his eyes. He, too, is talking to himself:

– Oh my God… they shelled such-and-such a building, so-and-so was martyred, fuck your fathers you sons-of-bitches. You’ll get what’s coming to you. Mum!

– Yes?

– Tell me the news!

– I heard you, you don’t need me to tell you. Now – your face – to the bathroom! You smell foul. Go and get washed before the water gets cut off, there’s a little bit of hot water.

Her sister arrives with her two small children, their eyes puzzled, their voices broken and hesitant, breathing shakily, terrified by the death-missiles. They enter the house:

– Oh! Umm Ahmed, such terrifying scenes – bodies sprawled, blood in the streets, they don’t fear God, the Lord take them…

– The main thing is that you’re here safely, but you need to be strong for the kids.

– God help us!

– Wake up Jenin…

She looks at her sister next to her, calling on God: Let Jaffa be OK, it’s not a problem if I die, but she’s only little…

Her Jawwal mobile rings, and it’s one of the children’s aunts, then another…

– Hello? Salaam Aleikum.

– Sister, they’re shelling around us…

– Our house is safe, come to us.

– Aleikum as-Salaam.

– There’s something happening everywhere…

– Come soon, it’s a long way…

Umm Ahmed’s house was in the middle of Gaza City, not far from the sea, filled with the scent of the waves and the sand. Umm Ahmed’s sister lived in the north, in Beit Lahia, while her husband’s sister was way down in the south, in al-Qararah. It was an area of burning, shelled by Israeli tanks and artillery, and bombed by warplanes, where Palestinian fighters resisted and planned their retaliation from a network of tunnels.

The house was shaking from shells being fired by the warships out at sea. The walls and windows were rattling, along with the beds, chairs and dishes. But it was safer than the other houses.

Jenin runs to her mother and kisses her, Umm Ahmed clings to her daughter, praying to God to protect her and keep her safe.

– Mum, is Auntie coming to stay?

– Look Jenin, the house is cramped but it is big enough to hold a thousand friends. Insh’allah they’ll get here safely.

Abu Ahmed, fighter and martyr, was killed seven years ago in another painful war, but still his memory and the sound of his voice live on with his wife and children. It was a fine memory of a fierce fighter, one who did not give up his land or his principles. He believed in freedom and in a free people, he loved the Palestinians. He wasn’t extreme in his attitudes for the sake of an idea, he understood life and navigated it gently, like a soft stream.

One sister arrives with her three children and is greeted. Dripping with sweat, she takes off her headscarf:

– Aah, Umm Ahmed! Where are you Abu Ahmed? See what they’re doing to Palestine, destroying hospitals and schools full of people. What do the Red Cross do? How did it come to this? A new exodus of people leaving their homes for the schools, the occupation forces us from our homes, and the world sits back. Where are the Arabs? Where are the United Nations? Where is Ban Ki-moon?

– Be patient, sister. We must be steadfast. God is with us, and right is with us.

The Gaza Strip has a high population density. The buildings are crammed together, with cement roofs. Chatter from every apartment entangles itself with the conversation at the next window. Water is scarce and the electricity gets cut off incessantly. Very few people can travel or leave. But the Palestinians love this patch, they say, and say that it is a land blessed by God.

Everyone gathers in the house, cowering at the thought of still being within the enemy’s sights. It is the month of Ramadan, and summertime too, so the high temperatures inflame everyone’s moods. Bodies dry out in the long hours of fasting. Perhaps there will be a great reward from God. Most people venerate God, believe and pray to Him. Some are stubborn and reject the idea, through suspicion or uncertainty. But everyone agrees on one reality: they are Palestinians.

Umm Ahmed goes into the kitchen with the other women to prepare the iftar meal to break the day’s long fast. It has intensified their appetite for food and they search for foreign tastes amongst beautiful fantasies in hidden stories of love, in sea-shells which carry the echoes of far-off memories. They talk, giggle, belly-laugh, swap pots and pans, and Umm Ahmed says to her sister:

– When the Athan calls out for the maghreb prayers, I want a coffee and a cigarette to settle my head. My head aches from sleeplessness and the sound of missiles. Leave what you’re doing and get a cup of coffee ready.

In the centre of the house the girls gather together with Jenin and Jaffa, who have woken up late, to lay out a dish of their favourite sweets – qatayef, beloved of the Arabs during the month of Ramadan. They flinch at every missile, crouching as the earth shakes, then carry on chatting, smiling, trying to ignore the uproar of war. Now and again they flick through the TV channels looking for soap operas, a satirical comedy or a romantic drama to steal a few moments away from the horrors of war.

Like grown-ups, the boys discuss military matters, deconstructing, analysing and each competing to assert his point of view, then getting angry, supporting the resistance, swearing oaths, offering to sacrifice themselves at any moment. Feelings and thoughts clash and collide, veering between accepting their fate, or resisting, standing up to an enemy that possesses weapons they don’t have. Ultimately they are happy with the dignity of combat, even if it is with meagre weapons. And yet they also dream of a leadership that knows when to start and when to end a war.

The boys grow up too young, aged prematurely by the successive rounds of war. They forget the joy of life and its heedlessness and take on the mantle of manhood and a wise head.

– Mama, get the coals ready for us, we want to smoke a nargilah!

– For God’s sake, I wish that nargilah would break! The house is full of smoke and soot, I’m tired of cleaning all the time!

– Mama, how many Ahmeds do you have?

– Ah… you!…You are not so innocent are you? You always remind me of your father. You’re so like him.

They arrange the table, bringing bowls and plates, putting each dish in front of the person who likes it most.

Ahmed steals a bowl of his favourite salad and, along with his aunt’s son, goes running around the house, his cousin chasing him:

–  Bring that back, it’s not yours! I asked them for it!

Wrestling and laughing, Ahmed brings the bowl for his cousin.

The Athan rings out with great humility, the prayer of the poor, a deep calm. But it also stands as a warning that there should be no-one out in the street right now, nothing to be heard except the sound of the drones and of dishes being passed around, strange smells, the first morsel of bread in the mouth of each person after extreme hunger and thirst.

Blood floods over the table, mixing with the food and drink, as each of them are fragmented. The laughter disappears, the family make no sound, there are no walls to offer safety anymore. Smoke and dust coat everything, the windows topple inwards, the glass shatters.

There’s a newsflash on the TV screen: the world watches Umm Ahmed’s windows as a bird flies up from the windowsill. But Umm Ahmed can’t see her house from the world’s point of view, she can’t see the broadcast.

The rocket surprised everyone. There was a morsel of food and a cry of life, a cry that was stifled. The aunts couldn’t rescue their children, the missile was too fast for them.

Umm Ahmed’s house was safe, that is what she told everyone. Her sisters fled from death, but met a different one. She had preserved the memory of her husband well, and protected his connection to the land, but she couldn’t protect everyone.

Ambulance crews and civil defence services rush to Umm Ahmed’s house, begin to wade through the rubble and body parts, their shoes becoming coated with blood. The coal for Ahmed’s nargilah is still burning red. Umm Ahmed had been heating the coal for her son when the missile struck. Her little girl had been carrying a glass of water to quench her mother’s thirst after the evening call to prayer. After years of standing strong, Umm Ahmed’s kitchen still houses her family: Umm is still there under the window, holding Jaffa. There is no longer any glass in it; her window is the whole sky. But Jaffa didn’t die. Her eyes are wet and dazed. She doesn’t speak. She holds onto her mother. Everyone is martyred and Umm Ahmed is dead. But Jaffa didn’t die.

The Book of Gaza, edited by Atef Abu Saif, and published by Comma Press, brings together some of the pioneers of the Gazan short story from that era, as well as younger exponents of the form, with ten stories that offer glimpses of life in the Strip that go beyond the global media headlines; stories of anxiety, oppression, and violence, but also of resilience and hope, of what it means to be a Palestinian, and how that identity is continually being reforged; stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’.

Another testimony from Nayrouz Qarmout has been published in The Electronic Intifada.