The festival of Eid al-Fitr ended a couple of days ago, and most of us in Gaza have just dragged ourselves back to work. After the sluggish month of Ramadan – when most people fasted, followed by a week of almost solid eating, drinking and visiting friends and relatives – it’s actually a bit of relief to get back to being busy every morning.
Paid work has become a luxury in Gaza, which has one of the highest population densities in the world, as well as one of the highest unemployment rates. Imports remain tightly restricted – so there are precious few materials to work with.
I live in a territory full of broken roads and houses, yet more than 80% of construction workers have now been laid off. Factory workers, farm workers, translators, doctors, taxi drivers, fishermen and people with dozens of other professions languish at home, or spend their days seeking work.
Across the Gaza Strip hundreds of thousands of men and women desperately want to work to support their families, and to have a purpose in life, but they have precious little chance of a decent job as long as the Israeli siege of Gaza continues. These are the people who will wearily tell you that: ‘Today was just like yesterday, and will be the same as tomorrow,’ or, as my friend Sabri puts it: ‘Life in Gaza has stopped.’
I walked home from work in the mid-afternoon sun yesterday, feeling a bit knackered, and looking forward to a doze on my couch. I took the same quiet back street that I do most afternoons. On one corner a local family has half a dozen palm trees, their high spindly branches now laden with ripe red dates. A wiry man with sun-blackened skin was literally suspended from the side of one of the palms, ten or twelve metres above the ground. He had a rope harness round his waist, and was maneuvering himself around the trunk by his splayed feet, whilst also shaking the dates into a large plastic bucket. It was quite a feat.
The way he was moving was jerky, but also graceful: he obviously knew his trade. I stood there gawping, and eventually, from high up, he caught my eyes.
‘Hey – foreign lady,’ he called, ‘life is beautiful up here!’ I laughed and beamed at him, thinking how his father and his grandfather too had probably been date-pickers, dependent on nothing but the sun, and the rope around their waist to harvest the dates, savour the ripe fruit, and enjoy the brief but life-affirming pleasure of a job well done.