The Underground Ghetto City of Gaza

Having despaired of the world, of the fear, of the blood, the only refuge left to us was the earth. We buried ourselves alive.

Amir Nizar Zuabi
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Palestinian smuggler climbing down into an underground tunnel leading from Gaza to Egypt, in 2010.
Palestinian smuggler climbing down into an underground tunnel leading from Gaza to Egypt, in 2010. Credit: Reuters
Amir Nizar Zuabi

Ten years and seven operations later, the mission is completed. Upper Gaza is totally abandoned. All of Gaza has moved underground. Men, women and children, a great mass of people.

We dug entire neighborhoods, streets, highways, schools, theaters, hospitals. We dug mirror images of the land above that we abandoned. We gave up on the dream of getting out of the Gaza Strip. On the promises to lift the blockade, to find a solution to the crowdedness and the hunger, and we took action. We, who were attacked from the sky, from the sea, from the fields, who had one-ton bombs dropped on our heads in pointless rounds of killing, have turned our back on life. We, whom the world forgot, decided to pay it back in kind, and forgot it right back.

Having despaired of the world, of the fear, of the blood, the only refuge left to us was the earth. We buried ourselves alive.

Now, 10 years after we started digging, the mission is complete. Deep, deep beneath the living world there is an entire city – the Gaza ghetto, an underground city. It’s moldier, chillier and a lot bigger. Here, you can barely hear the huge bombs exploding, and the only hint of the tanks smashing the streets is a slight tremor in the ceiling. We dug down into the soil of Gaza, through the layers of time. Sometimes we found bones, remnants – a room containing the jawbone of an ass, Samson’s long braid and Delilah’s thighbone, the bone that once supported the flesh of a splayed leg. And we found two broken pillars of an ancient temple. On one we saw a faint etching: “Remember me, please, that I may be avenged of my two eyes.” The loamy Gaza soil has always been the ally of despair and the despairing.

We kept digging more and more, with bare hands, with cracked fingernails. We dug so deep, so far, that we canceled out the blockade and the borders and the definitions of the upper world. We dug underneath all of that rubbish, and then we kept digging along the length and breadth of the land whose refugees we are. We returned to it, deep down in the earth. We realized a subterranean right of return.

At first we could still hear the clamor of Tel Aviv above us. We heard the propaganda herds shouting “Death to Gaza,” “Death to artists,” “Death to anyone who doesn’t applaud,” “Death to anyone who doesn’t toe the line,” “Death to life.” And we heard the sound of the footsteps that grew more and more organized, until they became a military march that trampled all.

We blocked our ears and dug deeper, farther. We didn’t want to hear anything, we wanted to get away. We dug so deep that we reached the Styx, the river of the dead. The old boatman gave us a helpless look and then he turned away. What good will his little boat do against the tide of blood, the masses of people, against the people of Gaza? We swam across the cold river until we reached the cold rocky bank, and then we kept digging – beyond life, and far beyond time.

We lost our eyesight. What good are eyes in the pitch black? We’re growing whiter day by day, almost translucent, like candle tallow. From dust to dust was the blessing in every mouth, quietly; we don’t hear anything anymore. Not the double standard, or the thousands of bombs, or the anguished cries of the attacker. Here we hear only the constant mechanical gnawing of the earth. Here in the dark there is only pure, solid despair, despair that makes us keep digging and digging.

And we start to hope that if we keep on digging, all the way to the core, if we don’t stop, if we perforate the land like a honeycomb, if we make it as flimsy as silk, maybe it will suddenly collapse in on itself. And then, like a tray piled with cups of coffee and cookies that crashes to the floor in a mess of crumbs and glass, it will all mix together. The upper part and the lower part will blend. And the rules will change. And we’ll be able to say with a sigh of relief: Here is a piece of sky mixed with a cracked piece of sea; here is Shujaiyeh mixed with Sderot; here is Zeitoun mixed with the Mount of Olives; here is compassion mixed with relief; here is one human being mixed with another. And we’ll know that we were saved from the living death in which we are trapped, and now we’ll join the life of above, and with them build a new land.

And an entire people will rise to the surface of the earth, pale and faded, blinded by the sun that beats down on the land. And we will stand in silence, waiting for our eyes to adjust to the light. And as we stand there in silence, the fear and anxiety will gradually creep into our heart, that while we were finding refuge in subterranean Gaza, the land above took its own life, was left behind and emptied out.

Amir Nizar Zuabi is a director and screenwriter.

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