Every morning I walk to my office about ten minutes away from my apartment. Ive grown to love this brief walk through the early morning streets. On the way I stroll beneath trees which are now blossoming, and savour my glimpse of the Mediterranean Sea sparkling as I cross Martyr Street into the alleyway that connects to the street where I work. By now I know many of the local shopkeepers, so my walk is peppered with waves and greetings. Even now, after the hellish last few months of war and death, Gazans are friendly and cheerful, and it is always a good start to my day.
These two weeks I have been walking to walk slowly, memorizing the details of these already familiar streets. My work here in Gaza is coming to an end, and soon I will be catapulted out of the Strip into the world beyond. My Gazan colleagues and friends tell me Im lucky: I can just drive up to the crossing at Erez, get my passport approved by an Israeli official and walk straight into Israel. I have friends here older than 30 who have never left the Gaza Strip in their lives. When I say I feel quite heartbroken to be leaving Gaza after almost a year and a half, some of them laugh out loud. Put me in your luggage! They say. You have no idea how lucky you are!
But others, like my friend Zekra, understand what Im going on about. The trouble for you is you need to leave now, but in this situation you dont know if you will be allowed to come back and see us, she says. We are used to being locked inside Gaza, but our situation is very strange for you.
And shes absolutely right. Saying goodbye to people in Gaza is awfully poignant because you never know if you will see them again or if they will be dead before you come back. Entry to the Gaza Strip is controlled by Israel, who can deny anyone a permit without giving a reason. As I said in my last blog about the political crisis crippling Gazas healthcare system, it is hard to think of any other place in the world ruled by such cruel absurdities.
This permit regime is one of the most frustrating aspects of living in Gaza. Israel acts with absolute impunity regarding permits, and until I actually came to live here I had no idea what a prison Gaza is. The future does not look promising either: Israel is relentless in its siege of Gaza, and the internal Fatah/Hamas power struggle has fragmented Palestinian resistance, as both sides persecute each other while at the same time claiming to want a Palestinian unity government.
But, despite the odds, there are many compensations for us foreigners who live in this broken strip of land at the edge of the Mediterranean. The wonderful Gaza food, laced with hot pepper, garlic, tomatoes and olive oil; the sunshine that smiles almost every day; and the fierce hospitality of people across the Strip. I have never known such reckless generosity in my life.
There are many things I will miss about living in Gaza, most of all my wonderful friends. But I have personal reasons for having to leave, so I am dismantling my lovely apartment, starting to pack my bags - and telling everyone to come to my goodbye party next week. The least I can do for them is to go out in style.