In the dialect of Gaza, where drones buzzed and blew things up for 51 days two years ago, there’s an onomatopoetic word for drones: zanana. When Atef Abu Saif’s kids would ask him, during that war, to take them out of doors somewhere, and he would refuse, they would then ask: “But you’ll take us when the zanana stops?”
Saif has published his diary from that time, with 51 entries, called The Drone Eats With Me. I recommend reading one chapter a day. You’re not too late to read most of them on the two-year anniversary of their happening. Reading the book straight through may not properly convey the length of the experience. On the other hand, you may want to finish before the next war on Gaza begins, and I really can’t say when that will be.
The 2014 war was the third that Saif’s family had been part of in five years. It’s not that he or his wife or his little children joined the military. They didn’t head off to that mythical land that U.S. journalism calls the “battlefield.” No, the wars come right to them. From their point of view beneath the planes and drones, the killing is entirely random. Tonight it’s the building next door destroyed, tomorrow some houses just out of sight. Roads are blown up, and orchards, even a cemetery so as not to deny the dead a share in the hell of the living. Long dead bones fly out of the soil in the explosions with as much logical purpose as your cousin’s kids are decapitated or your grandmother’s home flattened.
When you venture outside during a war in Gaza, the impression is apparently of being toyed with by giants, ferocious and enormous creatures able to pick apart large buildings as if they were made with Legos. And the giants have eyes in the form of ever-watching and ever-buzzing drones:
“A young man who sold kids’ food — sweets, chocolates, crisps — became, in the eye of the drone operator, a valid target, a danger to Israel.”
“. . . The operator looks at Gaza the way an unruly boy looks at the screen of a video game. He presses a button that might destroy an entire street. He might decide to terminate the life of someone walking along the pavement, or he might uproot a tree in an orchard that hasn’t yet borne fruit.”
Saif and his family hide indoors, with mattresses in the hallway, away from windows, day after day. He ventures out against his own better judgment. “I feel more and more stupid each night,” he writes,
“walking between the camp and Saftawi with drones whirring above me. Last night, I even saw one: it was glinting in the night sky like a star. If you don’t know what to look for, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish it from a star. I scanned the sky for about ten minutes as I walked, looking for anything that moved. There are stars and planes up there of course. But a drone is different, the only light it gives off is reflected so it’s harder to see than a star or a plane. It’s like a satellite, only it’s much closer to the ground and therefore moves faster. I spotted one as I turned onto al-Bahar Street, then kept my eyes firmly fixed on it. The missiles are easy to see once they’re launched — they blaze through the sky blindingly — but keeping my eye on the drone meant I had a second or two more notice than anyone else, should it decide to fire.”
Living under the drones, Gazans learn not to make heat, which could be interpreted as a weapon. But they grow accustomed to the ever-present threat, and the explicit threats delivered to their cell phones. When the Israeli army texts everyone in a refugee camp to get out, nobody moves. Where are they to flee to, with their houses destroyed, and having already fled?
If you allow yourself to listen to the drones at night, you’ll never sleep, Saif wrote. “So I did my best to ignore them, which was hard. In the dark, you can almost believe they’re in your bedroom with you, behind the curtains, above the wardrobe. You imagine that, if you wave your hand above your face, you might catch it in your hand or even swat it as you would a mosquito.”
I’m reminded of a line of poetry from, I think, Pakistan, but it could be from any of the drone-warred nations: “My love for you is as constant as a drone.” But it isn’t love that the drone nations are bestowing on their distant victims, is it?