My old friend, the sea

My name is Ola, and I’m a translator and a writer. I have a family of 10 (including my sister-in-law and nephew), whom I love to infinity. I live in Gaza City, which is both the geographic and cultural center of the Strip. Specifically, I live in the Tal-Alhawa (Breeze Hill) neighbourhood, very close to the sea. In fact, I live near a crossroad, with one leg leading directly to the sea.

The community is very busy, packed with buildings and people. My favorite part of the day is the morning, when the birds sing and the scent of the jasmine tree in my neighbor’s yard infuses the air. From the window I can see the sea, the one place where I feel, even just for a short time, really free. When I stand there looking out across the blue expanse, digging my toes into the coarse, golden sand, I feel like I’m my younger self again, before I grew up and learned how the harsh reality of the world. I feel like I am talking to an old friend, who has known me since I was a little girl.

It is not only the people of Gaza who have suffered throughout the years. Our sea has also witnessed war more than peace. Although it is the only place where we feel a little free, we are deprived of its deep, wide beauty and most of its bountiful fish. The Israeli occupation does not allow any Gazan to sail or fish more than three to six nautical miles from the coast—it changes from day to day for seemingly no reason. If you stray even a few feet beyond the arbitrary boundary of the stay, Israeli naval boats shoot—often detaining the fishermen and confiscating their boats, sometimes even killing them.

And when Israeli forces launches a war on Gaza—as they have three times so far—it often uses our sea to land on our shore, or shoot from above, one time killing four children as they played on the same golden sand.

The sea also is a receptacle for our pain and longing in other ways, as it carries some Gazans who try to emigrate to Europe seeking a work and safety (most know that is not safe at all and leave from the sea by Egypt instead, if they can make it there). During the Great Return March, one ship tried to sale out, carrying students who wanted to study abroad and people who desperately needed medical care. The ship was immediately confiscated by the Israelis and the captain was detained. 

My story of the sea is different from these, because I consider her my oldest, best friend who always listens to my thoughts and silent words. It makes me happier at times of joy and washes away my grief when I’m sad. In the past, my family spent a lot of time on the beach. We preferred the calm, clean stretches, rather than the crowded ones in the center of the city. If I close my eyes and let my mind wander, I can still feel the scorching heat of the sun, my hair flying in the breeze. We laughed, swam and took pictures all day long. My little brother had just started to walk, so we played with him and his beach toys.

A now polluted sea

But in 2005, suddenly everything changed. The government began allowing wastewater to pour into the sea because it couldn’t get the equipment and parts needed to repair and maintain our aging and war-damaged treatment system. My brother became very sick just after he swallowed the polluted water while swimming in a nearby stretch of the sea. The doctor told us it wasn’t safe to swim anymore. Ever since, my father no longer let us swim; we’d play in the sand and enjoy the view, but not swim. It is so sad to lose a great benefit like swimming, in such a beautiful, natural place. My youngest sister, who is now 9 years old, has never swum in the sea. It was a poignant moment when she asked me why we never swim, although we always relax in a beach chalet. I answered her with a sigh, explaining that we used to do this before she was born, but it’s impossible now.

Even though we can’t swim anymore, my brother and I still walk to the edge of the sea, remembering the old days. This friend is getting older and sicker due to all the pollution, yet our friendship will never die.

As for my sister, I show her our old pictures we took at the beach and share our memories. I vividly remember, for example, the day I almost drowned. I was only 10 years old and a wave swept me away from the beach. It was 2004 and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had declared a military operation called "Days of Penitence" against Gaza. Israel is the world’s eighth-largest exporter of arms, yet it frequently attacks the tiny, impoverished Gaza Strip.

Photo by Ahmed Kamal

Just a few days before the attack, my family went to the sea. My father, who is my hero, was watching me at the time. I couldn’t see where I was or how far I was from the shore. I slipped under the water as I heard Dad call my name, searching for me in the water. Because I was young and small, I was hard to see. I lost control; I was in such a deep area, I couldn’t swim or shout. I couldn’t open my eyes because of the saltiness. I kept slipping down, with my eyes squeezed shut, and the more I descended the darker it got. I was calm, and wasn’t afraid, because at that age, I was not aware of the consequences. I waited for someone to lift me up. And suddenly, in the midst of the cold darkness, I felt a big, strong hand doing just that. My dad.

Slowly, I realized I was saved. I felt my father holding me tight and swimming toward the beach as fast as he could to save me. I felt so safe between his arms. Afterwards, I asked him how he could find me when no one else could. He said he didn’t actually see me, but he just felt I was there in that spot and swam there. It was my father’s heart that guided him to me that day and my friend the sea showed him the way.

Even though it might seem a sad story, it had a happy ending. Now, my father and I remember this accident and laugh.

My mother thinks otherwise. It’s not funny that she almost lost me. She remembers how she cried and held me tight. Afterward, she sat with me until I fell asleep every night for a month.  My father calms her down, saying it was a long time ago and that he has gray hair now. I respond: “You’ll always be my handsome young hero, and I’ll never forget your soft black hair before it turned gray!” He smiles back at me and, as fathers do, wishes that I will find a good man who will appreciate me and keep me safe and happy.

One of the happiest memories is when my brother and I played a beach game with my mother: We collected seashells and stones, and I found the prettiest ones. We went home with pockets filled. My mother and I made a seashell necklace. It is my favorite jewelery.

The sea will always be my special place in Gaza. It will always be in my heart. I hope that one day, we will find a way to clean it and keep it clean. It makes happy memories for all of us, the Gazans, and in return, we must care for it.




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