I’ve just finished a remarkable book by Atef Abu Saif, The drone eats with me: diaries from a city under fire (Comma Press, 2015). The city in question is Gaza:
On 7 July 2014, in an apparent response to the murder of three teenagers, Israel launched a major offensive against the Gaza Strip, lasting 51 days, killing 2145 Palestinians (578 of them children), injuring over 11,000, and demolishing 17,200 homes.
The global outcry at this collective punishment of an already persecuted people was followed by widespread astonishment at the pro-Israeli bias of Western media coverage. The usual news machine rolled up, and the same distressing images and entrenched political rhetoric were broadcast, yet almost nothing was reported of the on-going lives of ordinary Gazans – the real victims of the war.
One of the few voices to make it out was that of Atef Abu Saif, a writer and teacher from Jabalia Refugee Camp, whose eye-witness accounts (published in The Guardian, The New York Times, and elsewhere) offered a rare window into the conflict for Western readers. Here, Atef’s complete diaries of the war allow us to witness the full extent of last summer’s atrocities from the most humble of perspectives: that of a young father, fearing for his family’s safety, trying to stay sane in an insanely one-sided war.
Over at the electronic intifada Pam Bailey explains:
Although already the author of four novels and a political science text, Abu Saif did not write this book with publication in mind. Rather, it began as entries to his diary, printed only after Ra Page, founder of Comma Press, recognized the potential in the passages shared by his friend in Gaza.
The writing alternates between poignant simplicity and dramatic flourishes and haunting metaphors. Abu Saif often uses a comparison to hunger and eating to describe the rapaciousness of war and those who “feed” off of it. “Destruction is a rich meal for the media,” he writes. “Their camera does not observe the fast of Ramadan, it devours and devours. It is constantly eating new images.”
The diary begins on 6 July — two days before the officially declared beginning of the war — with this chilling observation: “When it comes, it brings with it a smell, a fragrance even. You learn to recognize it as a kid growing up in these narrow streets. You develop a knack for detecting it, tasting it in the air. You can almost see it. It lurks in the shadows, follows you at a distance wherever you go. If you retain this skill, you can tell that it’s coming — hours, sometimes days, before it actually arrives. You can’t mistake it. War.”
I’ve been asked to speak on drones later this year at a conference at UC Santa Barbara on Metamorphosis: Animal, Human, Armor – the image above is from the extraordinary British film of Kafka’s novella: you can catch a clip on YouTube here – and no doubt partly for this reason I too have been taken by the ways in which, as Pam notes, Abu Saif turns again and again to tropes of human-machines feeding (captured in the title of the book too). I’d read parts of the diary as it was being composed – see here, for example – but the imaginary of predation is now even more compelling and even more shocking:
As the noise of the explosion subsides, it’s replaced by the inevitable whir of a drone, sounding so close it could be right beside us. It’s like it wants to join us for the evening, and has pulled up a chair.
The food is ready. I wake the children and bring them in. We all sit around five dishes: white cheese, hummus, orange jam, yellow cheese, and olives. Darkness eats with us. Fear and anxiety eat with us. The unknown eats with us. The F16 eats with us. The drone, and its operator somewhere out in Israel, eat with us.
More once I’ve worked out what I want to say at the conference, but for now there is a particularly thoughtful review and response to Abu Saif by Jacob Bacharach at The Rumpus here.