When one thinks of Gaza and of all the images portrayed by the media, beauty probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. And yet, Gaza is stunningly beautiful.
It is, of course, part of the Mediterranean coastline, with long sandy beaches which, as soon as the sun sets, come alive with young people and families. In the darkness it is nearly indistinguishable from the Tel Aviv-Jaffa parks an hour’s drive north, as smoke from barbecues fills the air and the sounds of laughter echo through the streets.
Tree-lined boulevards stretch between the high rise buildings of Gaza City, and minarets of the mosques dot the landscape. As we drive from the north to the south, groves of olive trees hug the road. Vibrant graffiti depicting images of hope and defiance and peace and love colours the walls.
Bustling markets are filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, piles of clothing, toys and household goods.
We experience the beauty of hospitality. We begin and end our days on the sun-dappled terrace of the Marna House Hotel, a place which now feels like home, drinking coffee and freshly squeezed lemonade flavoured with spearmint. In the hours in between, we are offered drinks and sweets by each partner we visit. Every time we’re in Gaza, we always have lunch at the same fish restaurant, and as guests of the Near East Council of Churches, we are guided to a table full of freshly prepared salads followed by delicious lightly fried fish, calamari, and prawns caught in the early hours of the day.
And, of course, there’s the beauty of the people we meet: Fr Mario of the Roman Catholic Church, who welcomes us always with a gentle smile and softly speaks of his work with the young Christians to whom he teaches English and theology. Bishop Alexius of the Greek Orthodox Church, who enthusiastically shows us the church, telling us of his efforts at preserving the historical stonework, and sharing stories of how it housed hundreds of people — Christians and Muslims alike — during the bombings of 2014. Lubna from the NECC, who guides us through the different projects, and patiently answers all our questions about her work, about life in Gaza, about her family. Mohammed from the Vocational Training Centre, who proudly invites us to see the ways in which the programme has developed and improved since our last visit. Samah from the Nuseirat Women’s Programme Centre, who introduces me with a wave of the hand, in imitation of the dancing we did together once at a wedding in Ramallah.
The young girls at the Shija’ia Psychosocial Clinic, of whom I now have a collection of selfies. The Greek Orthodox Christian family who welcome me warmly into their home, their daughter Elaine proudly showing her diploma after graduating as a lab technician in June, the aunt Mervet, recently engaged, WhatsApping her fiancé to introduce him to us, sending us all into a fit of giggles as she blew kisses to him through the screen.
When I hear the word ‘Gaza’, it is no longer a news story I see through my computer or tv screen. It is instead a collage layered with sites and smells and sounds, sadness and smiles.
‘The world will be saved by beauty,’ Dostoevsky famously wrote. And as much as we may wish it were otherwise, beauty and suffering are so often intertwined. I see the truth of this in Gaza, where those we encounter transform the suffering they experience into generosity, compassion, determination. We bore witness to these beautiful souls reaching out to save those around them from falling into despair. It is this kind of beauty — the beauty of a self-giving love — that indeed has the power to save the world.