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

Terry Notary's simian appearance as performance artist Oleg in The Square
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Ruben Östlund’s film The Square hammers home the point that we are all still animals

 Each thread and simian guest star shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive.

Yasmina Reza’s play Art, about three friends whose closeness is threatened when one of them spends a fortune on an entirely white painting, offered audiences a series of packaged talking points (Does objective taste exist? What is art?) for their post-theatre meal. Ruben Östlund’s film The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, serves the same function. Before the first scene is over, the Stockholm curator Christian (Claes Bang), a vision of metropolitan spiffiness in his red-framed glasses, has already wondered whether an ordinary bag placed in a gallery would qualify as art. In his current exhibition is a room filled with piles of gravel. A visitor pokes his head in, decides there’s nothing worth investigating, then leaves. We’ve all done it.

Like the canvas in Reza’s play, there is a catalyst for disorder here: the blue neon square set into the gallery’s courtyard. It is conceived as “a sanctuary of trust and caring” but its arrival throws everyone’s behaviour into sharp relief. A woman screams for help as she is pursued by an unseen aggressor, prompting everyone around her to become more than usually engrossed in their phones. Charity workers ask commuters whether they would like to save a human life, only to be given the brush-off. Christian’s relationship with poverty is squeamish. He buys a sandwich for a homeless woman. “No onions,” she says. “Pick them out yourself,” he snaps, incredulous to find that beggars can also be choosers.

His downfall, which starts after he hatches a cockamamie scheme to retrieve his stolen wallet and phone by leafleting the housing estate where he believes the thieves are hiding, is the thread on which the film’s provocative episodes are hung. Each one, such as the gallery chef flying into a rage because no one wants to hear about his balsamic reduction, shows how little distance there is between the civilised and the primitive. A series of simian guest stars, real and pretend, make cameo appearances to hammer home the point that we are all still animals, no matter how many private views we attend. These include the performance artist Oleg (Terry Notary), whose confrontational appearance imitating an ape at a black-tie dinner – not just scene-stealing but film-stealing – exposes the instincts of the herd to conform, even if that means ignoring violence taking place at the next table.

That sequence crystallises ideas that in other parts of the film feel distinctly wishy-washy. Jibes about pretentious artists (a cameo from Dominic West) or crass advertising executives smack of the contrived bugbears of clickbait columnists – what next, jokes about quinoa served on slates? And a section of the film about a bad-taste campaign to promote the neon square will seem penetrating only to viewers who have never considered that ad agencies might stir up controversy for publicity purposes.

Östlund is sharper when he focuses on the discord beneath everyday social interactions, using sound and camerawork to disrupt supposedly simple scenes. He prefers when shooting a conversation, for instance, to linger too long on one participant, rather than cutting back and forth between them, so that we begin to interrogate and mistrust the face we’re looking at. Stand-offs between Christian and the journalist Anne (Elisabeth Moss), including an excruciating argument over a condom, show this technique at its most blissfully torturous.

He is a director who is never more comfortable than when he is making audiences squirm, as he did in Force Majeure, in which a man neglects his family but not his phone when fleeing danger. But the situation in The Square, which escalates to the point where Christian must ignore a child’s suffering in order to safeguard his own existence, would have greater moral force if the film showed any interest in its poorer characters as something other than lightning rods for middle-class complacency.

The Square is undeniably entertaining, though its lasting use may be to demonstrate that movies can have the same effect as popping a coin in the collecting tin. Having seen the film, you can rest easy knowing you’ve already given. You’ve done your guilt for this week.

The Square (15)
dir: Ruben Östlund

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 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game