[The establishment of the new port of Haifa in 1929 led to a drastic change in the city’s social and political structure. Many Palestinian families and individuals moved from their nearby villages to live and work in Haifa given the prosperity of the economy, whether in the port itself or in its surrounding newly-developed areas. The port of Haifa became the major commercial port in Palestine and the second after Marseille’s port in the Mediterranean. Despite the prosperity it brought to Haifa city and its people, the new port served the interests of the British and later Zionist colonization. For that they invested the most in this port while marginalizing the other main ancient and pivotal Palestinians port cities, namely Jaffa and Acre, in order to prepare Haifa to be the main Jewish city back then. The sea brought goods and animals to Haifa but also brought the enemies. It was through Haifa port that Jewish immigrants from Europe entered Palestine and settled, and within only a few years they would ruin the Palestinian city once and forever[i]
;”>It was when her bare foot touched the sand for the first time that Najah knew she has lost al-Kafrayn forever. The scene of the sea she saw then for the first time, hit her with waves of sorrow and insecurity. It was gloomy and distant and had nothing to do with the sea her husband Naji described to her for months before she was convinced to move to Haifa with him in order to work and “live a bit.”
“Everyone goes to Haifa now… there are trains, theaters, street puppet-shows (qaraqoz), ‘magic boxes’[ii], all of this is Haifa… and the SEA! Oh Najah when you see the sea you will thank me forever. When I saw it for the first time, I felt sad. To be honest, I felt deeply sad for living all these years without being able to see the sea! To smell it and to let go for hours in the dark blue water without any disruption…”
Najah would look at her husband as though he was talking about something that doesn’t exist, as though he was speaking about their unborn baby, who they had been waiting for since their marriage three years ago. Her sad and unconvinced looks tackled his eyes, so he continues “I will be working at the port’s deck, will earn some money and then we will go back to al-Kafrayn”. Naji said these last words, while touching her chin as she lowered her head, then she raised her head with tears in her eyes and calmly said “the coast’s people have sandy roots[iii]… this is not going to end well…”
Najah was recalling all this as she stood on the sand that day of October 1947. It is Friday, the market is closed today so no work for her, no need to wake up at 4 am to prepare food to sell in the market for the foreigners who wanted to have a taste of Oriental food. Naji went to ‘al-Istiqlal’ mosque, but he will probably be late. Stories about the partition of Palestine and the withdrawal of the British were spreading all over the city, and men will probably discuss the latest news and what the Arab countries are up to in ‘al-Istiqlal’. Najah’s thoughts would only grew bigger in front of the sea, of which ships full of European Jews had came through the city’s port which had only intensified in the past few weeks.
It did not take long after this. On the 29th of November of that year, the UN voted for the partition of Palestine, and Haifa, like the rest of Palestine, became unsafe as stories about massacres started spreading. ‘For god’s sake, let us go back to al-Kafrayn… I want to see my parents… it is safer there,’ but Naji would hesitate and refuse, he would not tell her that al-Kafryn had fallen a few days ago, was destroyed and all its residents have fled or been expelled, including his family and Najah’s.
Within only a week or so, Haifa turned into a war zone and the Zionist troops attacked the Palestinian neighborhoods of the cities. Najah was at their small rented apartment in Wadi al-Nisnas when Naji came running and screaming: “Let’s go, bring the documents and the jewelry and let’s go. When he stepped out of the door, everyone was the same, holding their belongings and running towards the sea. When they got there, they were thrown in one of the small old boats with tens of others, some were familiar and others were not but they all shared the same worried and frightened expressions. Najah was crying and Naji wept as well. Weeping silently, he heard her weak voice: “I told you, the sea brings the enemies, the sea brings the evils.”
My mother doesn’t stop telling me – her only unmarried child – about that moment when she met my father:
‘It was three days after the ceremony of the Wednesday of Ayoub [iv] on the beach. I just turned twenty that week and I was sad. I was afraid of ending up unmarried. I think my mother thought the same when she allowed me to sing on the beach with the other unmarried girls: “Oh Sea, I came to visit since I am unmarried. All girls have gotten married and alone I’m wandering on your beach[v]” Everyone Christians and Muslims, used to sing with the unmarried. Everyone ya mama was happy back then.’
At this moment, my mother’s eyes would open wide –glinting and glowing as though she had just fallen in love.
“I was heading to aunt Maryam’s house, her daughter was about to get married and we were supposed to help with the arrangements. She was four months younger than me. On the way, while I was passing by the sea, a guy came towards me and said that he saw me in Ayoub’s ceremony a few days ago and that he would love to write to me if I would tell him my name. I was in a shock, but I knew that Ayoub was watching over me and I pray that he watches over you too…”
But Ayoub is gone, as is Jaffa. My mom would get upset. Sometimes I thought she was talking about Ayoub as a lover, but then I understood. Ayoub was the sea and Ayoub was Jaffa. He was my father. As a child, this always made me think that Ayoub would be the man I marry, that he will come out of the water. For me as a ‘benet’[vi] who never had the chance to even swim freely in the sea–that was merely a dream[vii].
“It was the summer of 1946 when we, Jaffa people, celebrated Ayoub’s ceremony for the last time. And when we fled to Gaza, we continued to celebrate it. I never stopped participating. Ayoub gave me your father as a gift, and I have to thank him. And now Ayoub was also Jaffa to me. But when Jamal Abdel Nasser [viii]took the lead in Egypt, he said that Ayoub is primitive, backwards and therefore people started to withdraw…[ix]
[In 1982, the Muslim brotherhood and then Hamas cancelled the ceremony[x]. Later on, during the eighties at the time of the first Intifada, Hamas banned the people of Gaza from walking on the beach for “ethical” reasons[xi],
[After the Oslo Accords, Israel allowed a 20-mile fishing area on Gaza Shores. However, since Gaza was besieged, this area kept being reduced reaching no more of 3 miles. Fishermen are finding great difficulty sustaining their living resources in the three miles zones and fishing became one of the most vulnerable occupations in Gaza]
In ancient times, men feared the sea because they believed it brought evil, devils and scary creatures…[xii]
That was the main reason for the barred relation between people and the sea. Whether it is a myth, or it is a reality that took the shape of the scary creatures, it is nothing but the reality of Gaza these days.
“Life became the difference between three and six miles. Once you reach the third mile you get shot. We go there for living, but living became risky and useless. You see the absurd; I am a fisherman without a sea. Three miles they gave us! Three miles is barley a pool.”
Instead of people fishing in the sea of Gaza, they are being fished by the Occupation. ‘The sea is actually eating us’. Nothing is a cliché in Gaza. Nothing is a myth.
[In 2003 Israel started building the separation wall between the Palestine occupied in 1948 and large parts of the rest of Palestine, mostly known as the West Bank. In addition to the concrete structure, Israel established a whole system that restricted movement and lead to the disconnection between new generations (including children of refugees from Palestine occupied in 1948) and their homeland, sometimes with just a few meters distanced].
Marwan’s body was melting in the water, slowly disappearing before he pulls it back up to catch some air before the next disappearance. It is the time he takes off between his swimming instruction classes at one of Ramallah’s luxurious pools. For someone like him, water has always been an issue to talk about.
“So, you look like you’re not from this part of Palestine,” he said to me with shiny eyes when we met for the first time eleven months ago at a friend’s house.
‘”Yes, I live in Jaffa but “ before completing the sentence he interrupted “Ah, I’m from Jaffa too, both my parents were born in al-Manshieh on the beach, but I‘ve never been to Jaffa.” He avoided looking into my eyes after this sentence and moved smoothly to ask what I would like to drink; he wanted to save both of us from the heaviness of the truth.
Marwan was born ten years before the wall, similar to others who lived to witness the wall and grew up with it as it extended itself for miles dividing and separating more and more worlds. He only heard about Jaffa and the sea. Is it because of this that he learned how to swim? I mean, to turn swimming into his passion as a way to contest the fact that he has never swam in the sea of Jaffa, or even seen it.
He used to say as if to justify this passion for water: “Time above water is not the same as beneath it, you see… I can withdraw myself from everything down there; it is like not being in Ramallah but at the same time being there. I am not saying that I don’t think of Ramallah at all while I am under the water, but I think about it distantly. As if it were not above me but rather I am above it and it is just there lying at the bottom…”
When I tried to convince him to come with me to Jaffa, he refused. It meant crossing the checkpoint, he might be checked and that meant imprisonment for both of us in case the occupation forces caught us. He wouldn’t care about himself; it was I who he cared about. He applied to the Occupation Army a few times to get a permit to enter the parts of Palestine occupied in 1948 – called Israel – but his application was denied for security reasons, like most young people his age.
Things became complicated as time passed between us, or to be more specific, every time I crossed the checkpoint to leave the West Bank and enter Palestine occupied in 1948, ‘Israel.’ Marwan would become silent and his eyes full of emptiness. He would not call or talk to me for a day or two after I left. He saw Jaffa coming between us, so he decided to take action without telling me. He paid the organizer in advance, set his alarm for 5 am – not that he would be able to sleep – and woke up the next morning before joining a group of workers who cross the wall every day by climbing over and jumping across the other side. That was the only possible way for them to live.
On the way to Jaffa, he called me and said “meet me at the beach”. I reached the beach a few minutes later and saw him sitting on the sand crying and shouting calmly: “No. I do not want to swim. It is the sea that I want. It is Jaffa that I want…”