Outside Gaza City's Al-Mataf Hotel I wait an hour for a taxi. There is very limited fuel I am told. Eventually a car arrives and I am dropped off at my friend's home. As there is another power cut, it is by now pitch black in the street. I grope my way towards a group of people standing in what appears to be a doorway. Mobile phones light up faces. A few of us awkwardly shake hands and exchange Hellos and Marhabas. I recognize no one. "Is this where Abdel lives?" Our limited grasp of one another's language leaves me uncertain as to how to proceed. Am I in the right neighbourhood? How do I find my way back? An uneasiness slips into my mind amidst these estranged surroundings.
I recall my recent visit at the Canadian Embassy in Cairo where the diplomat handed me The Official Warning. "Foreign Affaires and International Trade advises against all travel to the Gaza Strip, as it continues to be affected by serious violence. There has been an increase in the level of military activity in the area recently. Attacks have occurred and have resulted in multiple casualties. The situation could deteriorate further due to inter- factional violence, along with possible military operations in the area. There is a high risk of kidnapping in the Gaza Strip and foreigners may be targeted."
Increased vigilance to my surroundings. Escalation in heart rate. What am I actually doing here? Am I in danger?
"John, are you there?" Abdel's deep and comforting voice suddenly and happily lifts me out of this agony of mind.
Soon two psychologists and a psychiatrist are sipping tea, enjoying sweets - by candlelight - as the power has yet to be restored. It's natural that we begin to discuss the psychological effects of living not only under an increasingly brutal military occupation but also the hardship associated with the punishing economic and territorial blockade that touches all aspects of life in Gaza.
Suddenly, as if on cue, a deafening, menacing boom thunders by outside the living room window. The building and it's inhabitants tremble. "Israeli fighter jets", says the psychiatrist. “They killed four people earlier today.” I am stunned speechless.
Abdel fills my cup and hands me an almond cookie. I find myself once again in the presence of suffering. Palestine is that kind of place. It doesn’t have to be.