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5 Days in Gaza Part 1: GREETINGS FROM GAZA

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Thursday, October 18

This is the first part of what I hope is going to become a short series of blogs about what I can safely say is the most extraordinary journey I have done in my life so far.

As a very short summary on how this all came about: my boyfriend, Philippe (who also is a member of IOPS) is a professor of linguistics at the University of Tours, and it that function often receives invitations for conferences. He also happens to work in Generative Grammar, which – for anyone who doesn’t know this – is a linguistic theory that was invented by Noam Chomsky (yes, Noam Chomsky has a day job apart from political activism!). So you can say that Chomsky is more than a household name for us.

So when Phil saw, about ten months ago, a call for an international conference in linguistics to be held at the Islamic university in Gaza (I remember, as I was sitting in the next room) he yelled out for me and said: there is a conference in Gaza, wanna go? At the time, we thought it was something of an absurd thought (I mean, how were we even going to get into Gaza?) which quickly turned into a joke: Oh well, it’s linguistics and it’s in Gaza, so why not invite Chomsky to this? He might like to go. He made it to the West Bank (although last time in 2010 Israel had denied him entry, or "entery" as it says in his passport) but never to Gaza so he might be interested.

We told this jokingly to our good friend and Phil’s colleague at the University of Tours, Laurie Tuller, whose reaction, instead of laughing, was: Wait a minute! I have a good friend, a linguist of course, who did her PhD with Noam 30 years ago… maybe I should contact her. And from there on, what had started as a completely impossible thought snowballed into the first ever international conference on applied linguistics held at the University of Gaza. This is how it went:

Laurie contacted her friend Hagit Borer, also a professor of linguistics, born in Israel, and a life-long activist for the Palestinian cause. She was one of the passengers on the Audacity of Hope, the ship that tried to break the blockade of Gaza in 2011 but was held in Greece. Hagit then contacted her old PhD supervisor Noam Chomsky and several other linguist-activists, among them David Heap, a member of the Gaza flotilla in the fall of 2011 who actually got a taste of what life is like for the Palestinian people by landing himself in an Israeli prison for 6 days after being dragged off the ship.

In the end, we were a group of 7 scientists, 1 artist, plus Noam Chomsky and his friend Assaf Kfoury, a computer scientist, ready to try and get into Gaza and do what should be perfectly normal for any scientist in the world: to freely exchange ideas, thoughts and results of our own daily work with other scientists around the world.

So we set off to Cairo on October 16 and spent a day there getting to know each other (apart from Noam and Assaf, who arrived later and, naturally, didn’t stay in the same hotel with us ). We even found time to visit the pyramids. Every one of my traveling fellows seemed completely unfazed by the thought of leaving for Gaza and having to cross Northern Sinai in a couple of hours, while I grew more nervous by the minute. My admiration for these guys is endless, and without their constant reassurance I probably wouldn’t sit here and write about this right now.

After a night with virtually no sleep due to nerves and suppressive 30 degrees in Cairo even at night, we set off in the morning in a minivan with a driver from Northern Sinai. Our first stop was at the Hotel where Chomsky and Assaf stayed, to meet up with them. As they were driving in their own car, our plan was to drive in a convoy to Rafah and cross the border together.

I got my first glimpse of Noam when we he drove up next to us in his car while we were waiting in the minivan in front of his hotel. And I remember that, when I saw him sitting there in the back of the car, it all suddenly became just too real and I thought: wow, this is really going to happen after all.

We set off together, and you can find a full account of how our trip to the border crossing in Rafah went in a blog written in real time by one of my traveling companions here:

http://music4gaza.wordpress.com/

How she managed to write all this while sitting in the minivan for 12 hours driving through police checkpoints and watching military manoeuvers in the desert  is absolutely beyond my comprehension, since I was either on a high from seeing and talking to Chomsky in person or scared to tears by the soldiers frisking our stuff.

I still want to tell you myself the most exciting parts of the journey, apart, of course, from meeting Chomsky for the first time during our breakfast stop and having a coffee with him in a little café right at the border of the desert.

We were stopped three times by Egyptian soldiers on our trip through Northern Sinai. In retrospect, I think they were rather harmless, curious themselves and eager to practice their English on us. Still, I’ll never forget the moment at the last check point, when one of the soldiers took our passports and told us he’d have to call his general to see if it was safe for us to proceed. It turned out that we chose the day to cross Sinai on which the head of the Egyptian government, Morsi, was visiting his troops in Northern Sinai. So for a time we proceeded with a police escort, one car driving ahead, another small army truck driving behind us. We got a glimpse of 6 young soldiers, not older than 15 by my estimation, with machine guns climbing the back of their truck and putting on their bullet proof vests. I can’t tell you how much safer it makes you feel to have a couple of teenagers protecting you, especially when you don’t wear the bullet proof vest yourself!  But at least we were making quick progress now. We actually saw helicopters in the sky and a line of tanks in the distance in the desert while we were accompanied by our escort. By the time we got dumped at a road side mosque to have a little toilet break (I guess that solves the question of where to pee when in the desert) we had lost over an hour on Chomsky and Assaf, who had passed all of the check points without problem.

We finally met up with them at the border at Rafah, where they had been waiting for us. See Maire’s blog to see how it actually was to finally enter Gaza. Suffice it to say that it took 1 hour of wait in front of the big gate, another hour between two more gates in a room while passports got checked and stamped several times, just to leave Egypt. However, two hours total is really short and everything went well.

We finally met up again with Chomsky and Assaf on the other side, and got on a bus waiting for us there. At this point, I thought we had already entered Gaza. However, after a short trip we stopped in front of a building that turned out to be the actual entry point to Gaza, and I realized then that we still hadn’t made it. When we saw a delegation of official looking men in suits and several men with cameras waiting for us, or rather Chomsky, in front of the building to officially set foot into Gaza, we realized that this would be a more official welcome than what we had expected, but were by no means prepared for what was to come. And while Chomsky left the bus, his calm friendly self completely unfazed by the cameras around, the rest of us had to collect ourselves and try to do damage control with our sweaty clothes and fluttering nerves.

There was a short confusion when Antoine is the first off the bus and the camera men don’t know who they were supposed to film and start zooming in on him. Antoine just smiles and starts shaking hands saying his name, until everyone realizes that they were not here for him and turned to Chomsky instead.

Once off the bus, the cameras were all over us and we were greeted by a delegation of university officials and our contact and organizer, Mosheer, and were let into the building, where our passports were taken, while we were all brought in front of a podium for a first short press conference with two TV cameras, one of which possibly was from Al Jazeera. There was no time to reflect on what was happening and that we were actually now inside Gaza. We were already been put into a room with comfortable chairs and a bottle of mango juice on each little side table, while our passports were being processed. After about 10 min we got our papers back and hopped on the bus again together with Mosheer, our organizer, who was preparing us for what was about to happen.

We were driving towards the city of Gaza at night, which is about a 20 min ride from the border in Rafah, to the hotel we were going to stay. When Mosheer told us he had arranged for us to stay in “a place” we imagined a small hotel or maybe  a guest house belonging to the university. We weren’t prepared to see a 5 star hotel right at the Mediterranean shore, let alone being led through the massive lobby towards our football (soccer that is) field size rooms with a view right out onto the sea. When looking out of our hotel window, you can see a line of white lights ridiculously close to the shore that looks like a gated in swimming area. It turns out that these are lights put up for or by the fishermen to attract fish to swim closer to the shore, because the occupation line that separates the waters belonging to Gaza from those occupied by Israel (a 3 nautic mile zone) is actually so close to the shore. This of course means that there is almost no ground for fishing. Fish don’t usually go into very shallow water, so the only chance to still bring home a good catch is to lure the fish closer to the shore than they would normally go.

We are given 30 min to take a quick shower, then we are once again on the bus and on our way to the next event, this time a “real” press conference and an official dinner in the inner courtyard of the university. We arrive and get seated. After a little commotion because our ”bodyguards” want to discreetly separate the men from the women, and our three men stubbornly mix with us anyway, we were finally sitting at the table. Chomsky of course is being seated at the head table and welcomed specially by the director of the Islamic University of Gaza and several other officials. As I am writing this with a little delay and so many things have happened in between, the many people, employees, professors just blur together in my head, so maybe when I’ve had time to look at all the material we filmed I will remember who it actually was that welcomed us.

Chomsky gave a brief speech about how happy he was to finally see Gaza for himself and had a couple of general remarks on the situation of Palestine (we will get all his speeches out soon!). Then David Heap gave a very moving speech as well. I did mention this before, David is a very well known activist who was on board the ship that tried to breach the siege to Gaza in 2011, and who was arrested on board by Israeli soldiers after they boarded the ship when it was only 55 nautic miles off the shores of Gaza, and spent some time in an Israeli prison as a consequence. This trip was his fourth try to enter Gaza, so naturally he gave a very emotional speech. What I didn’t mention before is that, while we were driving through Northern Sinai, another ship was approaching Gaza to try to break the siege, the Estelle.  Neither I nor my fellow travelers had any idea that there was a possibility the Estelle would reach Gaza waters during our stay in Gaza. David, of course, knew about the ship, as did some others in our group, but the Estelle has been to many ports all over Europe , with stops in Barcelona and the Bretagne, before setting off towards Gaza, and the arrival coinciding with our conference here was pure coincidence. David, of course, talked about the Estelle in his speech, and also about his next project, the Gaza ark, which will try the opposite: to get a ship out of Gaza instead of in, to demonstrate that Gaza will be only free when it is allowed to participate in both, receiving goods as well as exporting them, as is the right for any free country. By now of course you have all heard what happened to the Estelle (at least the bits that were shown on CNN), and you have heard Netanyahu say that there is no humanitarian crisis in Gaza. We’ll see about that.

 After the two speeches, we all were rewarded a scarf from the university as a welcome gift. After a lovely dinner with hummus and other delights (no alcohol, mind you, the guys were craving for a beer after 12 hours in the desert) the day was finally at an end and we were being driven back to the hotel. Before falling into an adrenalin-withdrawal coma I remember thinking that, if I feel this drained and tired, how must it be for an 83 year-old man who is suffering from jet lag (although he said to us he doesn’t believe in jet lag!). I didn’t yet know what was to come in the following days, or I wouldn’t have pitied Noam just yet.

I hope to continue soon with day 2 of our visit: the refugee camps and Khan Younis.

Discussion 11 Comments

  • Antti Jauhiainen 23rd Oct 2012

    Thank you for writing this and sharing it at iopsociety.org, and especially for doing all the hard work of organising everything there!

  • Verena Stresing 23rd Oct 2012

    Thanks, Antti! So far, it hasn't really caught much attention on IOPS. No idea why? Chomsky's visit was a huge deal for the Palestinians, as was the conference we participated in, since it was the first ever international conference in the humanities held in Gaza ever. We were surrounded by media from all over the world, also because we coincided with the arrival of the Estelle, yet - of course - nothing in the main stream media.

  • Dave Jones 23rd Oct 2012

    What an experience. The only piece I saw was on commondreams.org, put together by their staff. The US presidential candidates tripped over each other trying to be the greater "friend to Israel" without mentioning once the open air prison which is Gaza.

    Can't wait to hear about the rest of your journey.

  • Matic Primc 23rd Oct 2012

    Really appreciate you writing this blog. It is good to hear.

  • Kim Keyser 24th Oct 2012

    Adventurous. Fascinating that Noam hasn't been in Gaza before…

    Did he – or other people from the academic delegation – do anything explicitly political while there? If so, could you outline what, and what kinds of reactions it got?

    Or were you all focused on the linguistic conference?

  • Johannes 24th Oct 2012

    Thank you very much for sharing your story with us Verena! Fascinating read, can't wait for the next part! Here is some coverage by the way:

    Chomsky's talk at the Al Mathaf hotel:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ASPw5LiBBpY
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSUxWVF4kU4
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KjbD2v0t_t0
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q3T3EkGba5I

    Chomsky's statement on the Estelle:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M36iarLHka0

    Estelle press conference:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JF8OCLRrhqo
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L3IpTx6OIKg
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=159WeZtaO9c
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z5GbRhRncv0

    PressTV coverage:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yPBsgpCvODE
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikCECVq4OlM

    Democracy Now! coverage:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Y2lbIESA40

  • Verena Stresing 24th Oct 2012

    Hi Johannes, you did my job!!!!
    on this crazy trip i didn't even have time to gather all the stuff on the net. I have a couple more links soon.

    I am in Cairo now, we made it out today under gunfire, drones a bombings. A shell exploded right next to our bus.
    I want to publish the blog in chronological order, if I can remember what happened, which is definitely too much for a week!

    Four of us are still in, and we are very worried. I'll tell you all more as soon as I can, but I need a couple hours of sleep now.

  • Ian R. 24th Oct 2012

    @Verena:Thank you for sharing your experiences. Glad you´re back in (relative) safety. I read this Blog yesterday already, but I didn´t comment.

    The Newspaper "Junge Welt" wrote about Chomsky and the "Estelle".
    Here´s the article with picture:

    http://www.jungewelt.de/2012/10-22/023.php

  • Verena Stresing 25th Oct 2012

    Thanks so much!

  • Alaa Radwan 25th Oct 2012

    Thanks God you got home safe :) I'd like to thank you for writing all the posts about your visit to Gaza! Really appreciated :) Good job.

  • Hani Salamah 26th Oct 2012

    Verena Finally You reached your Home in a Good shape,Regards to Philipe . Don't ask me Who are you ?!! I'm Dr.Hani from Gaza :). We all miss you here. I read your article its so interested. I will read the rest and Tell you my opinion. God save all of you and Happy Feast to all of you.