Bread, figs, phosphorus
There was a moment, just a brief one in the early sixth century, when Gaza was the intellectual centre of the world. This was not a dark age. Italy was enjoying a golden era in the Kingdom of the Ostrogoths; under Anastasius I, the Roman Empire in the east was wealthier and more stable than it had been in centuries. There were a few decades where it really might have seemed that everything would be alright, and the huge convolutions that had brought down the Western Roman Empire were finally over. The barbarian tribes were no longer churning out of their homelands. Cities were no longer burned. And then the nightmare-engine started up again: in 536 there were three huge volcanic eruptions, possibly somewhere in the Americas, that subjected the entire northern hemisphere to a year of winter and a century of famine. Five years later, an outbreak of bubonic plague that had begun in the Tian Shan swept across Europe and the Middle East, killing maybe a hundred million people. The Romans and the Persians destroyed themselves and each other, and when the wars in the east stopped, Justinian switched to ravaging the western Mediterranean in his ruinous attempt to put the old empire back together. The great cities of Italy were depopulated. The countryside reverted to wasteland. When the fierce and hungry people started moving again—Slavs, Kutrigurs, Avars, Lombards, Bulgars, Herules, Gepids—there was hardly anyone left to put up a fight.
But before the catastrophe, there was Gaza.
Gaza was large: the main port between the Mediterranean and the frankincense-rich interior of Arabia, home to Greeks, Jews, Persians, miaphysite Arabs, desert mystics, traders from the shores of India. Something nee. The Academy in Athens was still limping along, producing limp dutiful Neoplatonism as if nothing had changed in the world, but the Gaza School practiced a ‘feral Platonism,’ edgy, mongrelising. Procopius of Gaza wrote ornate, delicate, pious commentaries on the Prophets, and poetic works stuffed with invocations to Zeus and Achilles and other figures from the pagan past: these two worlds had not yet fully wrenched themselves apart. Aeneas of Gaza wrote sharp satires, including the Theophrastus, an anti-Neoplatonist dialogue on the finitude of the universe and the nature of the soul, packed with ‘mockery, humour, irony, and sarcasm.’ In his orations, Choricius of Gaza declared that his city was greater than classical Athens or Sparta, since unlike the Athenian sophists ‘it is not our custom to speak charming deceits to our audiences, but we follow the facts wherever they lead us,’ and unlike the decorous Spartans, who were kept in line ‘on pain of suffering the greatest punishment according to the law… propriety is present among us naturally; we do not need the instruction of the law.’
In 867, the Frankish monk Bernard the Wise passed through Gaza; he wrote that ‘after Albacara the earth becomes fruitful, and continues so to the city of Gaza, which was the city of Samson, and is very rich in all things.’ Nearly five hundred years later, Sir John Maundeville passed along the same road. ‘From Akoun,’ he wrote, ‘it is four days’ journey to the city of Palestine, which was of the Philistines, now called Gaza, which is a gay and rich city; and it is very fair, and full of people.’ In 1481 an Italian Jew called Meshullam of Volterra came to Gaza, and wrote that ‘it is a goodly and praiseworthy land, and its fruits are very well spoken of. Good bread and wine are to be had there. The latter is made only by the Jews.’ At that time, Gaza was twice the size of Jerusalem. In spring the city smelled of apricot blossoms and in summer it smelled of apricots. The well-water was very slightly salty; so was the cheese. Outside the city there were groves of olive trees that had stood for hundreds of years. At night, you could hear the wide dark sea rushing and retreating over the dunes.
I was a teenager when I attended my first Gaza solidarity protest, not long after the Israeli blockade began. The next day I wore my FREE PALESTINE badge into school. At lunch, one of my classmates sat down next to me and told me that I was an idiot, and if I ever went to Gaza they would kill me on the spot just for being a Jew.
It's true: between Meshullam of Volterra's time and ours, Jews stopped living in Gaza. Not for the reasons you’d expect: I later learned that the centuries-old Jewish community there fled in 1799 when the city was captured by Napoleon Bonaparte. But I've met some Jews who've managed to walk the streets of Gaza without being killed on the spot. Activists, journalists, NGO workers, but also former IDF soldiers. One told me that he used to patrol Gaza before the First Intifada. But patrol duty was boring, so mostly he'd just go to a pool hall. The owner—who was, of course, a Palestinian—was very happy to have a bunch of soldiers spending money at his establishment, but he insisted that they couldn't come in with their guns. So every day, dozens of Israeli soldiers would willingly hand over their rifles to a Palestinian Gazan, and he would put them away in a locker, and afterwards when they were done playing pool he would give them back. In those days residents of the kibbutzim near the Gaza Strip—the ones that were recently attacked—used to drive into Gaza City for their weekly shop. Why wouldn’t they? It was the nearest big city. I don’t know if you could say that the occupation was any nicer then. It has always been violent and illegal. But Gaza was still a city, and not just another name for death.
These days, what really strikes me about that claim—in Gaza, they'll kill you on the spot—is the they. Some cities are inhabited by people, other cities are only inhabited by a they. In Gaza, people disintegrate into numbers. 86% of the children under five are malnourished. 47% of the population are unemployed, 70% among the young. 29% live in a degree of poverty classed by the UN as either ‘extreme’ or ‘catastrophic.’ 95% of the water is contaminated. And then every few years another set of numbers arrives. As I write, 2,000 people in Gaza have died in Israel's indiscriminate bombardment of the strip. 7,700 are wounded. 400,000 have lost their homes. But it's too much. Even if they're sympathetic, a lot of people will quietly think: ah, what unfortunate things to have happened to the numbers 86, 47, 29, 95, 2,000, 7,700, and 400,000.
The actual horror of it ought to be unbearable. Just over a hundred years ago, a group of European Jews decided that our little tribe of mystics and merchants and strange interesting men would not be safe unless we had a state of our own; so now, halfway across the world, white phosphorus rains from the sky, sticks to the skin, burns through the living flesh of screaming people down to the bone. The ancient yearnings of the Jewish people have realised themselves in the invisible surveillance drones that fill the entire sky over Gaza with a constant audible buzz. The city with the good fruit and the good bread has been turned into a stateless cyberpunk horrorscape, the bad dream of modernity, a zone of continually expanding human biomass, but where all the infrastructure that makes modern cities inhabitable has been bombed flat, so the streets are periodically flooded with raw sewage.
And now, ever since Hamas’ killing spree on the 7th of October, Israel has been saturation-bombing the entire strip. It took the Army twelve hours to even approach some of the Israeli towns being decimated, but in that time they had plenty of resources spare to bomb apartment buildings in Gaza. If there was a list of Hamas targets, they probably exhausted it on the first day; since then they've been bombing like a vicious child destroying someone else's toys. Civilians were told to leave one neighbourhood and shelter in another, and then the Israelis bombed both. The IDF would give rescue teams the all-clear to rescue people from the rubble, and then deliberately target and kill the paramedics. Civilians were ordered to evacuate Gaza City, and then Israeli jets attacked them as they fled. There is nothing particularly mysterious about their motives: they are trying to kill large numbers of people, any people. Bombing as a national tantrum. A country that doesn't know how to express its grief with music or poetry, just high explosives.
Naftali Bennett expressed it best. To an interviewer on Sky News: ‘Are you seriously asking me about Palestinian civilians? What’s wrong with you?’ His shock and outrage were real. He genuinely didn’t understand.
Aerial bombardment feels cleaner and more civilised than looking someone in the eyes and killing them with a gun or a knife. It's not. Israel's comprehensive revenge-bombing means the resurrection of every gruesome medieval torture, on a mass scale. Innocent people are crushed to death under the rubble of their own homes, or burned alive, or torn to shreds with shrapnel. Limbs mangled, flesh stripped from bones... But you've seen all this. Gaza's last remaining export is images of Palestinian suffering. Every few years, you will be shown a succession of photos of urban landscapes turned into something lunar, lifeless, Stalingradlike, alongside clips of people you've never met wailing unintelligibly next to the body of a child. Eventually, I think, they start to form a kind of baseline. When hundreds of people are murdered in France, say, or Israel, the tragedy stands out from everything we know about the place: it's a shock. When hundreds of people are murdered in Gaza, we know that's just what happens there. Weeping next to their murdered children is what Gazans like to do.
A folktale from Gaza. Once there was a woman who had no children. She prayed to God for a child: I just want a daughter to love, she begged, even if she’s only a cooking pot. On that day, she miraculously became pregnant, and when she gave birth it was indeed a cooking pot, with a lid, made of silver and beautifully decorated. What was she supposed to do with this? She put it on a shelf. Then, one day, her daughter spoke. Mama, she said, take me down from this shelf and put me outside the door, and I will make you rich. As soon as the pot was put down she started to roll down the street until she found a good place by the side of the road. A merchant spotted her there. What a beautiful pot! he exclaimed. And just lying on the street like this! I’m going to use you to store honey. But once he’d filled the pot with honey, he found that the lid had stuck fast and wouldn’t budge, and eventually in his frustration he tossed the pot out the window. She rolled all the way home again, singing: Tunjur, tunjur, o my mama, in my mouth I brought the honey. Her mother was delighted with the gift of honey, but the next day the little pot wanted to go outside again. This time she was found by a richer merchant. What a beautiful pot! he exclaimed. He filled her up with choice cuts of lamb and beef, but when he tried to get the food out again, the lid wouldn’t budge. He threw the pot out his window, and she rolled back home, singing: Tunjur, tunjur, o my mama, in my mouth I brought the dinner. The day after that, she was found by an even richer merchant. What a beautiful pot! he exclaimed. He filled her up with gold and precious jewels, but when he tried to get the trinkets out again, the lid wouldn’t budge. He threw the pot out his window, and she rolled back home, singing: Tunjur, tunjur, o my mama, in my mouth I brought the treasure. Her mother would be rich now for the rest of her life, and she was full of love for the brave little pot. The next day, the pot wanted to go out again. No, said her mother, that’s enough now, we have more than we’ll ever need, and every time you go out I worry that someone will take you and I’ll never see you again. Just one more day, said the pot, and her mother relented. She rolled down the street until she found a place by the side of the road. A merchant spotted her there. You again! exclaimed the honey-seller. By God, you must have some magic in you, but I won’t let you get away with it this time! And so he seized the pot, pulled down his trousers, and shat in it.
I like that story. It has a moral: don’t get too greedy. It has its good crude scatological fun. But it’s touching: the woman loves the cooking pot, and the cooking pot—who is brave, and crafty, not above a bit of theft, and very human—loves her too. Unlike most of the enchanted objects you meet in folklore, she is first of all a person, who happens to come in the shape of something else.
When the Israeli defence minister Yoel Gallant announced a total blockade on all food, fuel, and electricity to Gaza, he justified this collective punishment on the basis that ‘we are fighting against human animals.’ I’ve been thinking about human animals. There’s this recurring nightmare scenario I can’t stop turning over in my head. I imagine the scientists, horror-struck, telling the world’s media what they’ve discovered: that fruit flies, those tiny little blots of motile matter that hang around in the air for no good reason and which we kill without really thinking about, are actually conscious beings. They speak in their own language, which is made of minute modulations in the fluttering of their wingtips, and which we’ve now decoded. They fall in love. They compose soppy poems to each other. Towards the end of its life, a fruit fly might wonder: have I been a good fly? Have I been good to my fellow fly? Have I hovered silently in enough rooms? Have I laid my eggs in enough bananas? Have I really lived? When a fruit fly dies, it is mourned. The fruit flies consider that the beauty of life is enclosed by the inevitability of death, and that thought sends a chill running across their chitinous exoskeletons, the chill of a small splattable being before the uncaring and the infinite. They are, in every moral respect, exactly like us. The life of a fruit fly is worth just as much as the life of a human being. What would we do? I think that we would immediately exterminate the fruit flies. Douse the whole planet in insecticide. Wipe out the bees and the beetles too, just as long as every fruit fly is dead. We wouldn’t announce it; we’d just do it. Like instinct. Better one single holocaust on our conscience than the unlimited ethical demand to protect the life and wellbeing of every fruit fly on the planet. Better that than having to think about every conscious being who ended up smeared into a dot of brown paste across the palm of your hand.