Damn French

Posted: April 4, 2011 in Stuff

There are a lot of things I like about Gaza. Surprisingly, the food is great. Not in a ‘jus of this drizzled with reduction of that’ sort of a way. No, just hearty and delicious. Shawarma and falafel and hummous and eggplant dripping with olive oil and pickled everything else, what more do you need?

Turns out my taxi driver in Egypt was the rule and not the exception; all taxi-drivers force you to smoke a cigarette with them when you get into their cab. Trying to insist that you don’t smoke really doesn’t make much difference.

In fact, there’s a weird tension between trying to rip you off as a foreigner, which occasionally happens (to the tune of maybe 50p), and insisting that you are not allowed to pay for anything. On a couple of occasions, I have ordered coffee and the waiter has refused to let me pay – welcome, welcome. A Gazan would not receive the same treatment in Starbucks.

Coffee is great here too – small shots, flavoured with cardamon, doesn’t make my palms clammy, and a good thick sludge in the bottom, perfect for tasseography (look it up).

Weirdly, I actually find this city quite beautiful. Sure it’s covered in rubbish, but I gotta say, I love walking on compacted sand rather than tarmac, and I love whitewashed walls and blue skies and bright sunlight. What’s not to like? Even the Arabic graffiti, which I can’t read, looks cool.

Yesterday evening I went to a picnic area by the beach with my boss and his three kids and two older Swiss psychodramatist ladies. In fact, I’ve been helping these two Swiss ladies with the English translations of their accounts of conducting psychodrama groups with traumatised Palestinians. Psychodrama sounds pretty horrific to me; as if the original trauma wasn’t bad enough, you have to act it all out a second time. Sure, it can be valuable to process painful material which has been repressed, but does it have to be through drama? Personally, I find acting pretty traumatising in itself. But apparently the Palestinians found it therapeutic.

So I shoveled in some more delicious spiced meats, then I kicked a football around with the boss’ three boys. Everyone has so many kids here. In part, it’s a form of resistance. Everything here is political. And that can give mundane things a certain poignancy. A flower pot placed in a patch of sunshine seems to mean something more here, to symbolize a people’s struggle for growth towards a brighter future. Or perhaps the pot had just been in someone’s way.

Here’s another weird thing. This is Gaza, where everything is supposed to be ultra-conservative and strict and so on. And in some ways, it is. But then everyone smokes in their offices, and when someone’s mobile goes off in a meeting they feel no shame in answering and chatting quite loudly, and people do u-turns where the hell they want and generally drive as if they were off their heads at sunrise in Ibiza.

My friend B was back from the West Bank where he goes to join his wife for the weekends. He works for the UN where he has a great job, but the funny thing is, he is not allowed to go anywhere unless he is in a bullet proof UN jeep. He’s been in Palestine for at least 5 years and he thinks these security measures are totally unnecessary, but he’d get in a lot of trouble if he didn’t obey them. He basically just gets ferried backwards and forwards from his office to his apartment. It’s funny because he is a wild one and we used to roam together in the glory days when he made the fat doc look like a lamb.

One night we were drinking a sweet blue spirit called aftershock. Next morning B came down while the fat man was washing up, with blue washing up liquid. I passed B a pint glass full of the stuff, somewhat diluted, and B, thinking it was aftershock, knocked it back as was his wont in the glory days. Then he looked sorry and ran up stairs and started vomiting into the loo and all the while the fat man running behind and chortling ha ha ha, and then B vomiting more and it was bubbles, just bubbles! Oh the glory days.

Anyway, the wind started to blow and I tired of kicking the soccer ball, so I said goodbye and left, just so. And that too is easily done. People here just come and go as they please. Now if that isn’t freedom.

Then I went to join B who was having dinner with his French wife in a hotel also nearby. But really it was a very fancy hotel, who’d have thought? The dining hall was enormous, maybe like on the Titanic. And I spotted B across the room – he is distinctive – and I waved, then I walked and walked and walked, and eventually got to his table. And I met his wife, only for the second time, and we talked a lot, but not about the glory days because wives do not like that.

All this time I had also been thinking how wonderful it is that there is no booze here, and no women. Well, there are women, but Palestinian women are all wrapped up and do not provide fodder for Onan, although maybe that’s because of the fear of decapitation. And the only other women I had seen were the two senior psychodramatists, and my friend’s wife. But it’s a wonderful thing, no booze or women, because the mind stays clear and calm always.

There were some women in the dining room of the Titanic, but it was not enough to destabilize, they were do-gooder women and probably hairy everywhere and rivaling the good Doctor in girth, at least some did. Now A, the wife of B, said, ‘Oh la la, there is the table of the French documentary team. They are here filming the children of Gaza for a week. We should say hello. You should meet the presenter of the film, she is so beautiful.’

Pah! thought the fat man and B, for B was eating a dish of melted cheese (which is his favourite), and I thought, ok, so maybe not as hairy and corpulent as toutes les autres, but, for onanistic purposes, the fat man likes pretty and petite and all the lovely things that he is not.

So, world weary and sagging of paunch, we trundle over to the table, and there I meet this:

Her name is Melissa Theuriau and yes, she is utterly ravishing. It made me so angry. What the fuck does she think she is doing here? Gaza is not a place for petite sexy French girls. And, goddammit, if she’s here filming a documentary about Gazan kids, she might even have a brain, maybe a heart? Perhaps she thinks about more than designer handbags? Sacré bleu! She has a husband too, as it turned out, but that didn’t help – the equanimity had been upset, and now I wanted a drink. Fortunately I couldn’t have one, so I left with A and B and was cheered up when they had to wait while THREE security guards coordinated the surveillance of the 200m stroll back to their apartment, and I walked freely in the night.

Then I got home and Onan the Barbarian was on tv.


Arab Spring

Posted: April 2, 2011 in Stuff

I’m lucky, I got here just in time for Gaza Fashion Week. The Arab Spring Collection is about to hit the catwalks. My friends at Gazan Vogue tell me that this year everyone will be wearing pink chiffon. It’s to die for.

In the meantime, some Gazan street art:



Posted: March 31, 2011 in Stuff

Right, so I have finally made it to Gaza.

In the end I came from Egypt, crossing at Rafah, in the Sinai desert. This was only possible thanks to Yasser at the Egyptian Embassy in London. I had spoken to him over the phone and explained my situation with the tiresome Israelis. He told me to fax him my passport and letter of invitation from the Gazan mental health agency, and that he would forward my request to Cairo. He said there was no reason why they shouldn’t let the good doctor into Gaza, although it could take up to two weeks to get permission, and therefore I should request to cross on Wednesday 30th June.

On Monday 28th I received a phone call from Yasser. He said that my request had been approved and that I had to be at the Rafah crossing in 48 hours. A little stressful. I booked the next flight to Cairo from London.

I arrived in Cairo the following afternoon. On arrival, I went to the tourist information office to ask how to get to Rafah. Three different people told me to go to three different bus terminals. In any case, there wouldn’t be any buses until the following morning, so I took a taxi to a hotel near one of the stations. The streets were full of cars but everything was eerily subdued, not at all as I remember Cairo. The taxi driver was nonplussed when I attempted to stretch the seat-belt around my paunch, then he insisted that I smoke one of his cigarettes. People here are certainly less concerned about longevity.

I spent the night in Caesar’s Palace Hotel – a shit hole with an empty but nevertheless blaring disco next to my bedroom.

The following morning, I asked the receptionist to call me a taxi to the first of the three bus stations. He told me it was too dangerous for me to go there; I should go to the second bus station on my list. Fine, I did. Then I took a 5 hour bus to Arish. The road passed beside miles of dunes and occasional camels and nomads. From Arish, I took a 45 minute taxi to the border at Rafah.

Rafah is not a nice place. A lot of hungry, angry people shouting in Arabic on the Egyptian side. They don’t like to see fat American men, and they don’t like it when fat American men prefer to roll their own suitcases rather than engage their services. I went up to the gatepost and handed the official my passport and my letter, in Arabic and English, from the Egyptian Embassy in London. He looked at them, then handed them back to me shaking his head. He said something in Arabic. I spoke to him in English. Mutual incomprehension.

Occasionally, Palestinians returning to Gaza passed by me. A few of them did speak English and asked me what I was waiting for. I showed them my letter. They read the Arabic and tried to reason with the Egyptian official. He wouldn’t budge. An old Palestinian lady really lost her temper with him, on my behalf. Her grandson said, these Egyptians, they are idiots.

After an while, a foreigner crossed from the Palestinian side. He was with a number of English speaking Palestinians. I asked one of them whether he could find out why they weren’t letting me cross. He took my letter and went to find a more senior officer. He spent a long time chatting to the officer, then he returned and told me that I didn’t have permission from the intelligence service. I would have to return to Cairo to get a letter from them.

The angry hungry people kept shouting and I did not relish the prospect of a 5 hour bus drive back to Cairo.

I phoned Yasser at the embassy in London. Thankfully he was at his desk. He said he would investigate and that he’d call me back in a few minutes.

I hung up and immediately received a text informing me that my UK pay-as-you-go phone was out of credit. More stress. I tried topping up by text and was astonished that it worked. A very fine service, for once.

Yasser called back two minutes later. He had spoken to Cairo, and Cairo was calling Rafah. That made me feel important. Yasser told me I should continue to wait outside the gate and someone would come out within minutes to get me. I thanked him, profusely.

Half an hour later, still nothing. I called Yasser again and told him that the good Doctor was beginning to worry. He said he would call Cairo once more but that, if I wasn’t let through that evening, I certainly would be on the following day.

I waited for another hour. I thought I would almost certainly have to run the gauntlet of the hungry angry people and find a place to stay in Arish. There was no longer anyone else crossing in either direction. I was about to give up when a self-important official materialised. He took my passport, disappeared, reappeared, and ushered me through, wordlessly.

I crossed an empty car park to a deserted arrivals hall. After passing my bags through an X-ray, I was led to a bus, then driven a few hundred metres to the Palestinian border. Here a bearded wrestler in a military black jumpsuit welcomed me with open arms. Wrestlers, a fine breed, the world over. He led me into a room full of Gazans returning home. I was immediately greeted in excellent English by four or five rather tall, handsome, efficient and friendly Palestinian officials. They asked me why I was coming to Gaza. I showed them my letter of invitation. They shook my hand again and insisted that I have tea with them while the paperwork was being completed and we waited in comfortable armchairs for my driver to arrive.

A tall, grizzled, powerfully built man poked his head into the room.

‘You journalist?’ he asked.

‘No, psychologist,’ I replied.

‘You come for help the Palestinian people? Oh welcome, welcome.’

The day had been stressful and uncertain, but that was a fine feeling. Alright, so I might not be quite the Doctor they imagine, but I haven’t come here to fuck the poor buggers over like everyone else in the last 100 years.

After a while, the driver arrived. The sun was setting as he drove me alongside the Mediterranean, past mounds of rubbish. Then into Gaza city. I met my boss who showed me my apartment, gave me a phone, found me a sim card and bought me some dinner, all within 30 minutes. Gaza may be a bit of a mess, but so far I have encountered nothing but efficiency and goodwill.

Last blow out.

Posted: March 14, 2011 in Stuff

Like I said in the ‘about’ bit (at the top), I just got this job for a mental health agency in Gaza. They think I’m a doctor but I’m not, I just changed my first name to Doctor. It was easily done.

I’m going to Gaza to dry out for a bit – it’s very conservative and hard to get booze – and because I want to see what’s really happening over there.

Anyway, the Israelis have already started to piss me off and I haven’t even got there yet. They haven’t approved my security clearance. I applied 10 weeks ago and it still hasn’t come through. Every time I phone they tell me to call back the next day. They’re polite though, I have to admit that.

They tell you it’s sufficient to apply for security clearance just 10 days before you want to travel, so I don’t know why it’s taking so long in my case. The  people who answer the phone at Erez – that’s the crossing – don’t have access to any information. They’re totally useless, but very apologetic.

Anyway, if clearance doesn’t come through soon, then I’m going to try to enter Gaza from Egypt, over the Rafah crossing. I would consider going through one of the tunnels, except I think I’m too fat and might get stuck.

Because of the delay, I’m still here in London. I went to a wedding on Saturday. I wore my old morning suit – the tails and the baby-egg blue waistcoat and the itchy trousers which have soaked up quite a few spilled drinks over the years and now smell like a pub. I ended up at a party in some trendy apartment near Old Street. There was a bath in the middle of the of the bedroom, just standing there by itself. During the glory days I’d have pissed in it, just for fun. But not now. Doctor Shusinksi doesn’t piss in a bath tub, freestanding or not.

Because I’m not in Gaza yet, my abstinence hasn’t officially started. Plus I needed to blow off some steam about the whole security clearance bullshit. I had a few drinks, then a few more. Then I tried to get some of the sweet brown, but there was none  at the party. So I left and found a homeless guy and told him that if he set it up I’d buy him a baggie too. We met his friend who was called Littl’un, then Littl’un made a call and then we walked for ever to a housing estate up by Kingsland Rd.

The dealer sent a minion down first, some skinny black kid in a wife-beater. He must’ve been really high, or on some Brazilian favela trip, because it was damn near freezing outside but he was just shooting the shit with us in his little wife-beater and not cold at all. Then the Boss-man came down and he was a sight: massive black dude, cornrows, wearing a black suit with a black overcoat with one of those fancy Astrakhan collars. And a lot a lot a lot of gold chains. He saw me in my morning suit which was really pretty out of place in that shitty estate, but he was a gentleman because he said, Sir, that is a very elegant suit, I do like to see a well-dressed man. And I said, Why thank you Sir, allow me to echo those sentiments. Then we shook hands and he slipped me three baggies and I gave one to Littl’un and his pal and we were all smiling because it was a job well done.

We left the estate and to celebrate Littl’un pulled three cans of Special Brew out of his backpack and I walked between the two of them. It was busy on Kingsland Road, being a Saturday night, and people stared at the fat man in the morning suit with the two tramps, all three of us sucking on Special Brew and grinning from ear to ear because we had the baggies in our pockets and knew we’d shortly be tasting the sweet brown sugar.

I went back to the trendy party and smoked the brown in the empty bathtub. It was good stuff and I ended up dreamy and itchy the way I like it, but that security clearance better come through soon.

Littl'un's buddy, I can't remember her name.