Iman Inshasi | 20-01-2019
Walking down the street, a used diaper greeted me with a gross “good morning.” I closed my fists and with gritted teeth thought, “What a stinky sight to start the morning.” I looked around; it wasn’t just the diaper. Joining it on the road were donkey shit and rotting chicken legs. If I didn’t live here and know better, I’d think all the donkeys in the strip had gobbled up the chickens and what I was seeing was the aftermath of a mass slaughter. I knew where all those chicken legs had come from: Children start their daily chores by dragging a trashcan double their size to the dumpster on the street. It inevitably breaks because they’re not strong enough to lift it up to throw the contents inside. But they try.
Rotten tomatoes, old slippers, sodden rags that had been used for generations—you name it. If the smell of trash could be condensed and bottled as tear gas, I bet it would be fatal.
Back in the UAE, where I grew up, teachers led their classes in discussions on the environment, an exercise designed to educate young people about their own role in promoting a healthy community. And then there is the fact that people there are ticketed for littering, at a cost as high as 500 shekels.
But in Gaza, it’s different. I remember asking a classmate where the trashcan was, since I wanted to throw away a tissue. She pointed to the floor and said, “Be my guest.” This drastic change of attitude preoccupied me for quite some time. It’s not that people aren’t clean; the inside of their homes is typically spotless. It’s that littering is a habit. There are no anti-litter campaigns and class discussions, due in part to the Israeli and Egyptian blockade (as well as repeated military assaults), which results in a lack of proper waste-management facilities. There is a shortage of garbage trucks, trash containers and spare parts to keep what equipment exists functioning.
That all leads to an acceptance of garbage—literally everywhere. When children misbehave, they are often reprimanded with this question: “DO YOU THINK THIS IS A HOUSE OR THE STREET?”
So, people grow up assuming the street is a place where you can do whatever you want. Kids carelessly throw a Coke can on the sidewalk because their moms aren’t going to chase them with a wooden spoon. Not being held accountable encourages this behavior.
And then there is this: Cleanliness of the streets is the least of Gazans’ concerns when they’re trying to put food on the table (poverty in Gaza recently topped 80 percent) or stay safe from bombing. If you took psychology in school, you’ll remember Maslow’s hierarchy: First, you worry about survival.
Thus, the streets of Gaza are like a scene from the movie “The Purge.” It’s like people have adopted “Who cares?” as a mott. When I see shop owners sweeping dirt into the street, I feel a strong urge to ask, “What’s the point of cleaning your place when the streets are so grimy? Why is it ok to keep your floor clean, but make the street so filthy for everyone else?” Most of us are unaware of how our actions make us look, to ourselves and to the world. When I give voice to my frustrations, the response I get is, “It couldn’t be worse.”
Then again, trash also can be another one’s salvation. I vividly remember one day in November when it was raining heavily. It was 8 a.m. and I was in class, happy the raindrops were purifying the air. I waited for a rainbow to color the sky, then was struck by the sight of a young boy climbing into a huge dumpster. He was trying to salvage what could be useful—either back at home or when sold. Real misery finds respite in the most uncommon places, I thought to myself.
Pointing fingers is not going to help anyone. Picking up the trash from the ground is.
Posted: January 20, 2019
Mentor: Deborah Root