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196, August 2014 Latest update 9 2014f August 2014, at 4.39 am
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Gaza Beach, August 2008
Gaza Beach, August 2008

Gaza: the Old Lentil Farm
By Louisa Waugh
In the southern Gaza Strip, tucked somewhere in between the cities of Rafah and Khan Yunis, is a district known as Khirbet al-Adiss or the Lentil Farm. This is the former site of a vast old Gazan lentil farm which is now a patchwork of wheat fields, olive groves, and tomato greenhouses. Local farmers also plant courgettes here, and corn, and rainbows of wild flowers flourish in between the fields where horses also graze in the shade of the olive trees. The sea is on one side of you and the border with Israel on the other, like everywhere in Gaza. But standing here amidst these fields you can see only fertile land and trees on all sides, giving you the brief precious illusion of wide-open space.  

I had lived in Gaza City for more than a year before I visited Khirbet al-Adiss for the first time, with a group of Palestinian friends. It was mid-March, less than two months after the end of the devastating Israeli offensive that changed the life of every person inside the Strip. We went to the lentil farm to have a brief change of scene, a breath of fresh air, and a barbecue. We wanted to relax and sing and momentarily forget about the grief that had saturated life inside Gaza. In just 45 minutes we travelled from Gaza City to the countryside and from one vivid experience of this besieged strip of land to another.

While the men were spicing the meat, I went walking with Stephanie, and we were quietly astounded by the peace and loveliness of this area. It was the only place either of us had seen that did not appear to have been scarred by the war. The buildings were all intact, there were no burnt-out vehicles or tank tracks gouged across the fields, and the atmosphere wasn’t weighed down with fear or grief. Khirbet al-Adiss felt fresh and light and strangely at peace. When we returned to our friends, the meat was sizzling and juicy, and they were lounging in the sun laughing and strumming the guitars. “Hey, where have you been?” one of them called to us. “We’re having a great time here - this is like being on holiday!”

Whenever activists, delegates, and journalists visit Gaza for the first time, they’re often struck by the physical beauty of the Strip; by the blossoms and palm trees that adorn Gaza, by the sunlight playing on the Mediterranean, the long beaches of pale sand and the colourful cafes that flourish along the beaches throughout the long hot bright summer. They also love the fresh, spicy food. The idea of coming to Gaza for a holiday seems ridiculous, even obscene, in the aftermath of the Israeli offensive. It is also practically impossible because of the crippling restrictions that Israel continues to impose on all movement and access to and from Gaza. But many Gazans will agree that under better circumstances (much better circumstances) their homeland would be a splendid holiday destination.         
  

Gaza already has a cluster of decent hotels that offer ravishing sea views - like the Beach Hotel, the Commodore, and the Mirage - and if they had regular clients then maybe they could finally afford to fill up the swimming pools. There are places to visit across the Strip, starting in the old eastern quarter of Gaza City with its thousand-year-old Turkish bath house, the glittering gold market, the ancient coffee houses, and the rambling souks. Afterwards you can take a taxi to the northern coast and swim at the Naurez open-air pool, or unravel Gaza’s rich and epic history in the new Al-Mathaf museum which the owner, Jawdat al-Khoudary, describes as a “recreation and culture house.” Perched right over the sea and featuring a hand-built water garden, Al-Mathaf also gives the precious illusion of peaceful space.              
The Haifa restaurant is just three kilometres south of Gaza City along the dramatic coast road. Until it was shelled by the Israeli navy during the offensive, this seafront restaurant served the tastiest food in Gaza and the best pizza anywhere in the Middle East (in my opinion!). The owner is doggedly repairing his restaurant and will meanwhile happily set up a table for you down on the beach, where you can relax all day and then savour the sun setting slowly over the Mediterranean.

The farther south you venture, the more pristine the beaches become; the Israeli settlers claimed the beaches at al-Mawasi because they are so gorgeous, but now that they have gone you can paddle and swim in the clear warm green waves. And if you eventually want a change of scene, drive inland and visit one of the al-Mawasi guava farms, such as the tranquil farm owned by Sa’id al-Agha, and buy fresh succulent guavas, plus seasonal dates, figs, apricots, or oranges. From there it is just a short journey to Khirbet al-Adiss.

People around the world know about the occupation of Palestine, and especially the tragedies of Gaza; they have heard about the ongoing siege, the Israeli violence, the chronic poverty, the child malnutrition, and the violent internal political conflicts. It is no wonder so many of them think that Gaza is hell on earth. But Gaza is ultimately more than the sum of its vast problems and the international manipulations and indifferences that encourage these problems to fester; the people here live on their sheer resilience.

Gazans are the most outrageously generous and welcoming people I’ve ever met in my life. Most of them love foreigners and desperately want more people to visit them in situ. It takes a huge leap of faith to imagine a Gaza where tourists are crowding café tables and haggling for Arabic trinkets. But in my experience most Gazans do not want to be seen only as victims of siege, occupation, and bloody political violence, but as people who live in a place that has the potential, however fragile, to be a beautiful, safe destination to visit.

Louisa Waugh lived in Gaza City from December 2007 to April 2009. She is now writing a book about Gaza. You can contact her at louisabwaugh@hotmail.com.

Article photos by Louisa Waugh.
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