A prisoner once again

At last I have made it back to Gaza to see my family, armed with supplies for my ailing mother. Now

It's seven years since I left my home and family in Gaza; I wonder if they know what I look like now. Do they miss me at mealtimes? Or are there no mealtimes now my mum has had a cancer operation that nearly killed her? Will
I be able to see her before it is too late?

The Rafah border between Egypt and Gaza has been sealed for the past three years, but I am desperate to see my family, whatever the cost. I plan to take a solidarity boat from Cyprus, organised by the Free Gaza Movement. It is part of the Hope Fleet sailing from Larnaca to Gaza
in an attempt to break Israel's siege.

When I arrive at Larnaca airport, everything looks the same as when I was first here, seven years ago, after being trapped in Cairo airport for five days. (I had left Gaza with five days to spare, to be sure not to miss my flight, and like all Palestinians was not allowed to leave the airport. I found myself leaving one prison and entering another.)

Next day, I set off to find some colostomy bags for my mother; because of the siege, she is not able to find enough. The Cypriot hospital gives me just one bag. With their little English, the nurses try to tell me that all hospitals across the world have such things. I want to say that Gaza is not part of the world - well, not the world we live in, anyway.

Next morning, we are briefed on the possible outcomes of the trip: the best is being stopped by Israeli gunboats; the others are being arrested or attacked by missile. We are asked to sign a paper saying that we understand the risks involved. It also asks what we would want to happen in case of death. "Please make sure I am buried in Gaza . . ." Signed: Ahmed Masoud.

The next day, we are still waiting for the boat to leave. Someone mentions that the Rafah border might open for a short period of three days. I spend about two hours deciding whether to wait for the boat to leave or to fly to Cairo. If I don't leave for the border today, I will lose precious time with my family.

The moment I reach Cairo airport, my passport is taken away and I am asked to wait in a separate room. I am then sent to a different small room, where I wait with lots of other people for six hours. A four-year-old girl travelling with her dad can't stop crying; she hasn't had any water for ten hours, and is not allowed to get any. A bus comes to take us away, with a policeman who holds our passports. After nine hours, we get to the border. The little girl is still crying.

On the Egyptian side, the border is filthy and full of people. It takes us all day to reach the Palestinian side, where we are finally given bottles of water. I spot the father of the little girl telling her not to drink too quickly. Finally, we are on the bus to Rafah in southern Gaza.

I look everywhere for my brothers, who have been waiting for me on the other side. I keep staring out of the window to see how much Gaza has changed. There are lots of destroyed buildings as a result of the Israeli attack in January, but I feel I still know everything.

I hurry off the bus, but am stopped by a tall guy with a beard, who asks me where I am going and grabs my bags. I start shouting at him that
I don't need a taxi, but he is no taxi driver. He is my own little brother - though not so little any more. When we get home, my dad is the first
to open the door. I walk through afraid, as if saying sorry for my long absence, like a naughty teenager who has stayed out late, but he rushes to me and hugs me. I feel his tears on my shirt, making it wet. My mum is at the top of the stairs. I am so happy to see her on her feet. I feared I would find her lying in bed, unable to speak, but she is wailing and the kids are jumping around dancing dabke. I realise how long I have been away.

After a week of enjoying the food, weather and company, the question of how to leave hits me. I am anxious about not being able to return to my pregnant wife in London, and to rehearsals of my play, which we are taking to Edinburgh. I was supposed to leave with the Free Gaza boat, but it never reached its destination. The Israeli navy intercepted it two days after I arrived in Gaza. So I am stuck here. Will I wait for the border to open, God knows when? Or find an escape route?

The author's play "Go to Gaza: Drink the Sea" is at the Assembly Hall, Edinburgh, 6-30 August (0131 623 3030; www.assemblyfestival.com)

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Red Reads

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.