REVIEW OF THE DRONE EATS WITH ME
Diaries from a city under fire
Comma Press publishes new writing and has championed the short story. Most excitingly, it has brought translated works to the wider world. With well-chosen and diverse titles, it gives insight into lives from little known places via the best of short stories.
Gaza is ‘foreign’ to the outside world in the full meaning of the word. Few readers live in an area constantly surrounded by force from land, sea and air. What is known of Gaza comes from news of its wars and accusations of attacks from both Palestine and Israel. And so it was Comma Press’s wish to show what it means to be a Palestinian “through stories of ordinary characters struggling to live with dignity in what many have called ‘the largest prison in the world’”. The resulting anthology The Book of Gaza was edited by Atef Abu Saif, one of the authors. Grimly, as it was published, 51 days of another war began.
During Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’, Saif wrote a diary entry each day in English. Compiled by Comma Press, The Drone Eats with Me, has two meanings. The author likens the strikes the drone makes to the sating of its hunger (for lives). Secondly, the constant presence of the drones culminates in targeted strikes which appear to coincide with the two main meals of the Gazan day. Although there are battleships whose guns strike the shore, armoured tanks at the borders and F16s bombing key buildings, it is the drones that dominate the horrors of the narration. Whereas the bombs may decimate entire buildings, they are less discriminate, more neutral.
It is the frequent mention of a single operator sitting at his computer control picking out his distant target that shocks the reader. According to Saif, the child in the street, the family sitting at dinner, the young motorcyclists have all been deliberately targeted. The drones supervise and threaten even during truces. They have sensors which provide an all-seeing eye to select targets anywhere in Gaza.
“Drone operators can clearly see their targets on the ground and also divert their missiles after launch,” said Marc Garlasco, senior military analyst at Human Rights Watch. . . . “Drones carry an array of advanced sensors, often combining radars, electro-optical cameras, infrared cameras, and lasers. These sensors can provide a clear image in real time of individuals on the ground during day and night, with the ability to distinguish between children and adults. . . .The missile launched from a drone carries its own cameras that allow the operator to observe the target from the moment of firing to impact. If doubts arise about a target, the drone operator can redirect the weapon elsewhere.” (Precisely Wrong, June 2009)
How to review a book like this – a first-hand and on-the-spot account of life during another episode of Israeli/Palestinian conflict? The diary is not a political invective, although it is taxing to do the work justice without making political comment. It is a piece of history in the making, but cannot be put in context without countless pages of unbiassed analysis. The writer is a journalist, and the book can be discussed as journalism, but he is not on location, he lives in Gaza, he was born there, he knows no other place as home and he is an integral part of Israeli’s enemy. He writes from the guts; the endangered man unable to protect those he knows and those he loves.
If this book were fiction, we might criticise that the crisis is not well placed, such as three quarters of the way into the narrative, that this book is all crisis. But it is non-fiction, and the 51 days offer little other than crisis. The reader is on the edge of his seat dreading the next bomb will be a direct hit on the narrator and his family. As it is, he ‘only’ loses a step-brother, whereas other individuals lose entire families and some witness their children decapitated, their loved ones mangled into lumps of flesh by the bombs. The dreadfulness of family losses and gruesome deaths Saif records with a kind of paralysed dissociation. A child sees his father and uncle smattered into merged body bits and his family “are having difficulty calming him down.” Were it fiction we might criticise the lost opportunity for impassioned words over the horrors described. But because it is no fantasy, a dream-like state may be the only way to move through the hours of onslaught.
The journalist risks his life walking out in the evening to see friends, to check on the progress of the war – that is, the extent of devastation during the previous hours and its exact locations. Keeping a routine seems essential. He is constantly aware that he is “alive by chance” and that he will die by chance and wonders how many chances he has used up. His days suffering the fear of annihilation, his nights tormented with the noise of bombing and the nightmares where he dreams he is running through it with his little daughter, all result in a dazed confusion between what disaster has happened and what might happen. His awakenings take time before he can accept that is truly still alive.
Meanwhile, farmers cannot risk collecting produce from their fields, the souks dare not open, housewives rush out to buy anything they can during any lull but they cannot stockpile because electricity is only available for an unpredictable hour or so. The mother struggles to keep the five children safe by not allowing them out and the reader imagines her coping with all of them in a confined space, day after fearful day, often in the dark. But this family are lucky. They are only sharing with her father. The Palestinians support each other lending each other flats, crowding, whole extended families of ten or more, into a relative’s small house. Most go to the accepted places of ‘safety’ in the centre of Gaza, avoiding the tanks on the borders, the warships at sea. 100,000 already live in Jabalia Camp’s 1.4 square metres and now many more rush in, many made homeless by the bombing. They take refuge in United Nations schools. But bombs fall there too.
Saif notes carefully the death toll of each day but he “doesn’t want to be a number”. Throughout the book he adds footnotes naming those killed: the four boys playing football on the beach, the men in the cafe, the entire families wiped out by a single strike. Perhaps naming them is some attempt to honour them and properly respect their death. Funerals are too dangerous for many to attend, stretchers carry body parts not bodies, even the cemetery – a strange source of perceived threat – is bombed, so that the dead “die twice”.
Saif’s 11-year-old son has now lived through four wars. The four sons and baby daughter understand little of the bombardment around them. They know that they cannot leave the flat where they have taken refuge often for days on end and that their parents argue about whether after dark, the older boys may go with their father a four minute walk away. Their desire: to play computer games at the internet cafe – one of the few places where there is fairly reliable electricity. It takes little imagination to guess what they play on the computers. The chosen game is unlikely to be Pacman, although that game closely resembles the daily life of a Gazan as described by Saif. And while they play the computer games their father is preoccupied by the computer operator of the drone and what he might choose to target.
If this were a work of fiction, I would liken it to Golding’s Pincher Martin as a work describing a demise. Pincher fights a lone and hopeless battle for survival, gradually becoming aware of the real nature of the struggle he is engaged in.
Throughout Saif’s daily account, the reader searches for meaning behind the onslaught the Gazans suffer. How far do the Israelis mean to cause this suffering? The Telegraph interviewed an Israeli commander. Major Yair stressed how he avoids innocent deaths. Hamas operatives, he says, routinely exploit Israeli restraint by hiding behind civilians. “It is sometimes frustrating because you feel that you’re fighting with your hands tied. There are a lot of situations where you see your targets, but you will not engage because they’re next to kindergartens, because they’re driving with their wives and their kids.” Should Yair read Saif’s book, what disenchantment for him to learn how signally this belief in restraint has failed. The Independent’s data gives virtually 1/4 of the total killed in that episode of the war as children.
The Drone Eats With Me is a testament to history not learned. I need not say more.
To read Saif’s book is to marvel that its pages were not blasted into smithereens together with its author before it was complete. But the miracle – the win – is to have survived. The suggestion is that survival was not the intention of the attacker. Perhaps to adjust, the miracle is to have survived this time.
Comma Press have ensured that a first-hand account of that war will do so. Others can then read The Difficult Lesson.