I enter the Gaza Strip weekly, my routine the same: cross the border, settle into my office, and then walk around the corner to purchase fruit and vegetables for the week from Abu Emad‘s market. In my 5 years in Palestine, I am a regular at this market. Upon entry, I am greeted boisterously by Mohammed, the man who manages the store—sometimes manning the register, sometimes supervising teenage boys on their tasks, sometimes lounging and listening to the radio. No matter what he’s in the middle of doing when I enter, Mohammed rushes to greet me with a handshake, asking me where I’ve been, and taking great interest in the mundane updates from my life. He entertains my broken Arabic graciously, nodding along with my clumsy sentences as if there’s nothing amiss. Our ritual concludes with Mohammed breaking off a banana from a bunch, carefully peeling it halfway, and offering it to me with a hand over his heart.
In May 2021, one week after a ceasefire is brokered to end the 11-day, Israeli-led bombing campaign, I return to Gaza. My usual commute from the border to my office becomes elongated due to lengthy detours around cratered streets. I finally make it to my office and spend the rest of the morning holding my colleagues in long hugs, honoring their survival. I eventually make my way around the corner to Abu Emad. Entering through the same entrance as usual, my head instinctually turns towards the register across the shop to greet Mohammed from across the market. There he sits, but this time it’s different. He’s leaning back in his chair, his head tilted towards the ceiling, eyes closed – a perfect embodiment of exhaustion emanating from the marrow of his bones. His eyes open slowly, as if fighting quicksand. His face flickers when we make eye contact. Reflexively raising his hand in a gesture of greeting, he makes his way to me, his exhaustion dissipating into a lighter energy.
We shake hands, slower than usual, a silent acknowledgement of what had just happened in Gaza. Alhamdulillah al salama, thank God for your safe arrival, he says, acknowledging the several kilometers and Israeli checkpoints I must cross to return to Gaza. Alhamdulillah al salama, I send back to him, acknowledging the traumatic 11 days he and the rest of Gaza had physically survived. Our handshake decelerates to a simple handhold through this exchange of greetings. On some level, I know this handhold is a stand-in for a hug, a forbidden gesture between unrelated men and women in Gaza. Mohammed’s eyes sparkle as he continues, “Truly, thank God that you’re here. Because if you’re here, then the war has certainly ended.” By which he means, if Gaza is safe enough for me—a foreigner with an American passport—to be allowed here, then this ceasefire must be real.
I sit silently with the painful inequities revealed by this moment, my hand still wrapped in Mohammed’s. Finally, he releases and springs to the next step of our ritual. He pulls a perfectly ripe banana off a bunch, snaps the neck, and pulls four floppy peels halfway down. His wrist moves balletically to hand off the unpeeled side of the banana to me, his other hand on his heart.
Our ritual complete, Mohammed returns to the register while I carry on with my shopping, banana in hand. Alhamdulillah, he says to no one in particular as he makes his way across the store. He collapses into his swivel chair behind the register, reclines his neck, and lets out an expansive sigh. Alhamdulillah, he says again to the sky.
Anam Raheem is the youngest daughter of Pakistani immigrants to the US. A writer and non-profit consultant, Anam previously lived in Palestine for nearly 5 years, where she established a coding school in Gaza and the West Bank. Her creative writing spans fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, and her short story “Tessellation” was nominated by Wasafiri Literary Magazine for their New Writing Prize in 2021. Anam lives in New Jersey and is currently at work on a book exploring Palestinian resistance as an extension of the natural world. Subscribe to her newsletter and check out her other writing here: https://www.anamraheem.com/