Smoke rises from a building hit by an air strike on 25 July. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Tomorrow the war ends: diary of a writer in Gaza City

“Although I ask my family what date it is every day, and I look it up myself whenever I can, I always forget within a few short moments.”

Although I ask my family what date it is every day, and I look it up myself whenever I can, I always forget within a few short moments.

And so I didn’t exactly know the day, or the date, or the time. My phone was out of power. The night was as normal as any other in Gaza, or so I imagined it to be. No electricity, true, but this is nothing new. Perhaps it’s new for the length of the outage to stretch from hours into days, but still this is normal. There were no sounds of bombardment, or gunfire, or screams, only the sounds of drone aircraft. This, too, has become a normal occurrence, as these planes always circle above the skies of Gaza.

I sat in my room, thinking of this idea of normality. The house was quiet, enough to hear the sound of the night breathing between your limbs. Staring into the darkness of the room, you can avoid thinking of any images of death past or present that you might have seen.

The electrical current returned, though I heard no sounds of rejoicing as used to happen. The noise of televisions did not come from the walls of our neighbours’ houses. All I heard was my mother’s footfalls as she ran to plug in the refrigerator and check that we had water. The beautiful thing is that my mother’s running is something normal - it happens every day when the power comes back. Each of my siblings grabs his or her laptop or smart phone with a sigh, hoping to make use of the minutes of current to play, read, or write on their social media accounts about Gaza. This happens every day.

I convince myself, this time, that we are going about our daily lives, and that this sudden war will end tomorrow, or the day after tomorrow, or the day after the day after tomorrow. I don’t know how long the thought had managed to settle in my mind before it flipped head over heels as the whole house shook. The books flew off their shelves, and the sound of a harsh blast made me jump from my bed and head into the living room. I asked, at the same time as the rest of my family: “Where is the strike? It must be close by…”

In a single second, the idea of normality is gone. We sat together, looking at each other, unable to cry or comment. One of us flipped through the channels, and we watched in grief and pain.

The sounds of the bombardment grew louder, as each one of us made a visible effort to withstand it. The closer each explosion came, the more we were struck by a single thought: is it our turn next?

When will there be a truce? Will there be a truce?

Not a day goes by without each of us asking that question. Each of us wants to go about our lives, just as we all know that everyone in Gaza wants to go about their lives.

I still don’t know what day it is, or the date, or the time. I have moved beyond the cycle of time. Day and night are no longer fixed. In war, you sleep at any time and are awakened at all times. It is war, and nothing else, and this is what we don’t want to admit. My mother goes to work and returns with two narratives, the first of life in the city that has gone to sleep and the other of the struggle to exist. In the streets there are houses transformed into ashes. The alleyways of the city are filled with piles of rubble, with memories of entire families buried beneath them. On another sidewalk, people search for food to give their children, urging their hearts to beat faster to show all generations that the meaning of survival is life.

I live in the middle of the city. It’s no more secure than any other region of Gaza City, yet people threatened with evacuation have travelled here. Along the street, houses have swelled with the displaced. Those who have fled look for help, settling by the dozens in storerooms and closets. They spend their time looking for a resolution that is surely close by, telling their children: tomorrow, the war ends. In doing so, they repeat what our grandparents said after 1948: tomorrow, we return.

Every person thus uprooted gathers two forms of sadness in his or her face. The first is the one we all experience, with each bombardment or loss. The second is the sadness of a personal loss, whether of stones or of flesh and blood, for the stones gave them shelter and contained the story of their lives.

Tomorrow the war ends. They win out over their sadness with this idea, and draw from it hope for tomorrow, a tomorrow that might return them to the threshold of the houses where they were born. They might not manage to forget the moment when their hearts were shattered into so many fragments, as they fled under the sounds of the bombardment, whether they were from Shajaiyya, Zaytoun, Tufah, or any place in all-too-small Gaza.

Tomorrow the war ends, and the city breathes in the mornings once again. Its mosques and churches go back to their prayers, as the city bids farewell to its martyrs. The sadness is broken by hope, which cannot help but rise again. The war will end, and the martyrs will guard the gate of heaven against any more deaths. The young will go to school carrying their bags, and run about in the yard. The war will end, and the wandering salesmen will go back to hawking their wares. The city’s famed hummus and falafel stores will open, and the Zawiya market will be filled with vendors and shoppers. People will buy their flour and their spices, and go on. Tomorrow the war ends, and the chroniclers will write at the top of their pages that the date the 2014 Gaza War ended was—

Translated from the Arabic by Andrew Leber

Najlaa Ataallah was born in 1987 and lives in Gaza. She has published two novels, one novel for young adults, and a collection of short stories. She is a contributor to The Book of Gaza: A City in Short Fiction, published by Comma Press

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump