Al-Zawiya, Gaza’s magic market

As I wander the street, I almost feel like a stranger. Not too many years ago, I loved shopping on al-Zawiya with my mother. 

I remember stepping into the covered souk and feeling like I was in a maze, mesmerized by the people, colors and smells. As a child, I’d be instantly transported someplace exotic as I inhaled the scent of the burlap bags full of cinnamon. My sisters and I raced enthusiastically through the crowds to our father’s shop at the other end of the market, while shoppers muttered or cursed at us under their breath for running in the middle of such a crowded place. 

Memory flash: I’m standing in the market, looking on as a trader calls to people to buy tomatoes from his cart. His donkey is tethered at the back door of the Bank of Palestine, and its well-dressed employees trickle out to gather around the offerings in his cart, as if holding a meeting. The man shouted louder. I squeezed my body between the bank employees and anchored myself in place by holding on to the edge of the rough, wooden cart. I looked up in awe at the big, red pile of juicy tomatoes. 

Suddenly, I was yanked out of my reverie by a hand pulling me out of the dreamlike scene. My mother was screaming at me to stay by her side, so I didn’t get lost. I cleverly told her my sisters were the ones who were lost and that as the oldest sister, I had to find them. So, mom sent me on an expedition to look for my sisters. That meant walking by the part of the market I hated, where slaughtered chickens are sold and the stench is overpowering. As I stepped into a puddle of dirty street water, I heard my sisters giggling at me and I almost burst into tears. One slipped and found its way onto my cheek. I wiped it away fast and ran to hug my father in his shop before my sisters. 

Those moment seem long ago now. I find myself here today because I was in hurry to meet some friends and hailed a taxi because it so very uncomfortably hot outside. The driver promised to get me there in seconds, as they always do. I am usually preoccupied and don’t even notice where the driver is going; the moment I hop into a taxi, I mind my own business. I read. I keep reading.

Often, I forget to tell the driver to stop when he’s near my destination. That’s what happened today, and suddenly, I found myself next to Al-Zawiya. I felt as if it was my destiny to return after a long absence. Why does this marketplace have such a hold on me? What force pulls me to enter and look at the spices, fabrics and people? 

Today, though, I don’t hear the vendors calling out to customers to buy their products. In the past, the shopkeepers were usually hidden in their stalls, busy with those who wanted to buy. But today, they are all sitting in front of their doors, waiting to make a sale. I also don’t see vendors with carts anymore. It’s a sign of the deteriorating economy—a result of lingering COVID-19 concerns and the decades-long Israeli blockade. 

I long to race with my sisters again. I ache to relive my childhood. I want that original magic back.

I approach a wall and touch the old bricks, wondering what stories happened here. From far away, I hear a man shouting, “tomatoes for sale,” so I jog toward his call. I almost run. I stand next to his cart and look around for a little girl squeezing her body between the people’s legs to get a glimpse of the tomatoes, but there is no one there. I ask about the price, then buy a kilo and go home. 

I say hello to my children Taim and Tia and tell them, with a smile, “Kids, I bought tomatoes.”

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Mentor: Zeina Azzam

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