This is a story about a boy called Hamid. One might argue that it starts fifty-six years before he was born, during the Nakba of 1948 – in Arabic ‘the catastrophe’, the founding of Israel during which over five hundred Palestinian towns and villages were wiped off the map, seven hundred thousand Palestinians were driven from their homes, and over twenty thousand Arabs were killed, including in what historian Nur Masalha describes as ‘scores of massacres’. But it’s also true to say that, like a shooting star briefly glimpsed, the span of a short story can be a streak of light within a much longer narrative arc. So, let’s say this story begins on the last Friday in April 2018, when Hamid is 14, a boy living in a house in Shejaeeya, a working-class district in the East of Gaza City, with his parents, his two little brothers and younger sister, and his grandfather. His father is a mechanic, though there isn’t much work at the garage anymore, so the family sometimes has to get help from charities or the Ministry of Social Affairs to pay the bills. His mother looks after the house and the children. They aren’t an especially political family, but no Palestinian can avoid politics. Since the end of March, after prayers on a Friday, the whole family, along with Hamid’s uncles, aunts and cousins, has gathered up cushions and a picnic and gone out to the tent camp at the border to join the Great March of Return.
As of the time of writing, early 2020, the March has been suspended and, due to the coronavirus pandemic, may not be resumed for some time. But when this story starts, there were five tent camps in all, stretched along the border from North Gaza to the closed Sufa crossing near the old airport. Hamid’s family, arriving in two old cars, one driven by Hamid’s father, the other by his uncle, always go to the one closest to their house, south of Gaza City near the Karni crossing, also closed for years. On that April day, as they have done every Friday since the March began, they park up then join the people walking down the dusty road to the site, a river of people bearing a flotilla of flags: the red, green, white and black sails of Palestine rippling and shining in the breeze.
It’s a slow procession, and Hamid begins to feel frustrated by the pace. As the tops of the tents come into view above the heads of the marchers, he dances ahead, cutting through a group of youths and nimbly swerving round a fat lady in a niqab and her pram.