Gaza – birth amid death

A short film about a courageous midwife in Gaza.

And here are my personal reflections on filming in Gaza, in particular the extraordinary story of Gazan cameraman Khalid – that’s me on the left, Khalid on the right.





Khalid is a smallish, wiry man with a lot of energy. I’ve been working
with him this week – he’s an experienced cameraman. I remember
seeing him jump onto a low stone wall and then spring off again –
simply to use up the excess energy. He’s been very focused on getting
the piece done – maybe the most committed cameraman I’ve ever filmed
with. He also likes a joke and doesn’t like people to be too deadly
serious too much of the time.

Like most Palestinians he smokes too much and I worry about his health.
As I’ve found in other places where people have lived with war, they
are amused at us cissy Westerners for putting on seat belts in the car.
But it’s interesting – I felt I had to say something, because of my
worry. Sitting in the front seat as Khalid drove us, I blurted out to
him, his wife and daughter that statistically you’re much more likely
to be killed or injured if you don’t wear a seat-belt – I doubt if
it will make much impact, but I wanted it to. I want them to look after
themselves, and I think of Khalid dying of cancer.

He’s very tight with his family – in a kind of free-ranging, busy
guy about town way, if that’s possible. On the last night, I was a bad
boy and ignored the UN regulations for visitors and went out with them
at night. It was the first day of Ramadan and we’d had a long day of
shooting. My UN driver had grumbled to Khalid that he didn’t want to
be kept out too late, so I’d gone back with him to my hotel at 5 pm
– with my host from the UN, another great guy, Osama (a common name,
nobody bothers to joke about Bin Laden). Osama was nervous about me
keeping to the rules, because he would have got into trouble if anything
bad happened. Something bad happening to me is only a remote possibility
– internationals are only very rarely targeted here – there’s some
risk of criminal activity – a senior UN official was shot at after he
fired some people for corruption – and one BBC reporter was held
hostage – but as Khalid says, here, even if they take you hostage,
they’re not going to kill you – unlike Iraq, which we’d talked
about – I’d told him I’d been there three times.

Anyway, after I was dropped off at the hotel, I simply called Khalid and
he came and picked me up again. He was filming the piece for me, with a
protégé and a female assistant. One slight awkwardness was that I
could see he was a much better cameraman than his protégé, Darwish,
who he was proud of, having trained him himself. I would gently suggest
some alternative angles when Darwish was filming and Khalid would take
the hint and take over the camera. A young woman, Maram, whom Khalid had
been training especially for the shoot, also came with us – on the
well-judged advice of Osama – since there were some scenes where only
a woman was likely to be allowed to film. That’s exactly what had
happened that day- we had finally found our “nervous couple on the way
to the maternity ward” which we’d been looking for all week. Khalid
had been asking everyone at the hospital, calling his friends and even
distant acquaintances, to see if anyone was on the point of giving
birth. All, so far, too no avail, though it seemed that everyone at the
hospital knew him by now – and we’d had some near misses – friends
who’d given birth the morning he called and so on.

That day – pay dirt!  We were filming with Fiza, the midwife who we
are profiling for the piece, in the village of Beit Hanoun where she
lives – close to the northern end of the Gaza Strip, therefore much
more susceptible to Israeli incursions (“incursions” is the accepted
official term – actually it works quite well, since it sounds
basically neutral – unlike invasion, raid, bombardment etc)  Anyway,
we were about to film some scene of minor consequence – Fiza baking
bread or reading the Koran, when a cluster of black clad women entered.
Osama must have heard what they were talking about – but I thought it
was simply a friend or neighbour calling. It turned out it was a woman
living nearby, who had come with relatives and her husband. She was
already 5 centimetres dilated – on the way to giving birth, possibly a
few hours off. Fiza examined her (we scattered round the corner so we
wouldn’t be in Khalid’s shot as he filmed them walking into the
house).  After they came out, Osama approached and miraculously managed
to persuade them to be filmed – miraculously, because she was dressed
very conservatively with just a slit for the eyes, and he was a Hamas
member – expected to be very conservative in outlook. They had come
specially to see Fiza since their first child had died in childbirth and
they were naturally terrified that something would happen this time –
Fiza is well-known and hugely experienced. We set off in convoy to the
hospital, I managed to winkle the cameraman into their car (large
camera, not much space, Fiza had to ride in another car for a bit).
Then, at the hospital, Maram disappeared into the labour ward with them
and we waited, hearing every now and then that she was “6
centimetres”, “8 centimetres” and so on. Sunset was approaching
– everyone apart from me was fasting for Ramadan (I had had a lunch
break at the hotel so it was easy for me, and didn’t need to drink
while I was with the others).

Some time later Maram came out looking upset, Khalid seemed to have some
harsh words with her – at one point thrusting the large camera into
her lap. I let it go, but a little later was able to ask Khalid what was
going on. Apparently the husband had said that Maram was not allowed to
use a certain shot – and that if she did, there would be problems for
her family. I had no problem with that –but probably Maram felt she
didn’t have control over the process and that she would get into
trouble. It turned out that while she had been filming the woman walking
in the ward, her clothes had fallen away for a moment exposing her body.
I would never have used the shot – a Gazan technician who was later
transferring the video files to a drive for us, took it out – so I
never actually saw it.  Khalid told me that during the argument as Maram
came out, he had said to her “Go ahead! Delete it right now!” Poor

Eventually, we got the shots – Maram couldn’t film the actual birth,
but got a sequence immediately after it – when Fiza brought out the
baby – looking blue – and proceeded to ask for oxygen, holding the
baby up several times to slap its back, pushing an oxygen tube into its
mouth – it almost seemed like the little baby was being inflated at
one point like a small balloon – this went on for what seemed like
some time – but probably was only a couple of minutes. The baby
breathed – happy ending.  (A footnote – on the bus back out of Gaza
to Jerusalem I mentioned the sequence to a jovial guy from WHO – and
we both had the idea that he take a look at the sequence and give his
comments on the techniques used and so on. But before seeing the video,
as he listened to my description, he suddenly became serious and said
– “It sounds like she wasn’t using the correct technique – maybe
we shouldn’t show this – I know the people from the head of the
agency you are working with – UN Population fund, (who are funding the
shoot)” – and in a second I was filled with cold fury and fear –
was all the sweat of our labour to be lost – because of this
interfering official? I decided not to show him – but eventually when
we returned to the subject, we managed to laugh about it – and he told
me he wouldn’t after all block me from using the material – but
there had still been a moment where he was actually serious – this has
happened to me before when working at UNICEF – told not to use a
sequence because I woman was not breastfeeding in exactly the prescribed
way – gah!)

Back to Khalid – he invited me with his family out to one of his
favourite places – a stables and riding school a little way south of
Gaza City. By now it’s about 10.30 pm. It really is nice – not many
people there – curious, they have an outdoor screen playing an Arab
soap.  We sit at the edge of the riding ring (paddock?) which has jumps
etc and sandy soil – we order mango juice (in bottles) and Khalid and
his wife smoke the hookah – they offer it to me, and again the cissy
Westerner talks about the health problems – but at least this time I
have an ally – Khalid’s 19-year-old daughter Dina who is studying
dentistry. She confirms what I say, that the hookah is actually worse
for you than smoking.

Dina is desperate to get away from Gaza – she would like to study
abroad. Khalid promises her that she will be able to to do a masters
somewhere else – I hope he can succeed. It’s extremely difficult for
most Gazans to get out of Gaza – Khalid can – for reasons that will
be explained below – but his wife, for example, hasn’t been able to
visit her relatives in the West Bank for about 10 years. I hadn’t
realized that there is very little allowed movement between the West
Bank and Gaza – in fact that it is harder for Gazans to go to the West
Bank than to other places – is it because the Israelis don’t want
Gaza’s population to be replenished? Maybe not, because that’s a
lost cause anyway, since the Gazan birthrate is one of the highest in
the world – and one of the reasons, Gazans and internationals tell me,
is that there is a feeling that they want to produce more Gazans to
boost their demography – other reasons – conservative culture,
difficult conditions and poverty also, I’m sure, play their part.

It’s noticeable, anyway, how concerned I am for the health of Khalid
and his family. He wanders around a bit, on the phone – I chat with
Dina. I am in that familiar situation of hearing how difficult life is
for them, without really being able to offer anything to alleviate it
– other than giving a sympathetic hearing. It would be quite natural,
you’d think, for them to become resentful of people like me who have a
marvelous life in terms of being able to go anywhere in the world.

Khalid also rents out apartments, and I’m sure by Gazan standards, has
a good income. Their apartment is pleasant. They have a tough-looking
caretaker/security guard – for the whole building.  His youngest son,
Yusef, has just lost his cell phone – he’s only nine years old.
After some stern words from Dad and a phone call home to the security
guard – the phone is found. Khalid explains he wasn’t so much
concerned about losing the phone, but that lots of private pictures of
the family are stored on it.

Three young-looking horses roam around the paddock. It’s fun to see
them running freely. It gradually emerges that they aren’t really
supposed to be doing that. Two of the horses leap over the fence and go
back toward the stables, which are behind a wall on the far side of the
paddock. One horse is left behind. Much neighing, and racing back and
forth – but although the horse repeatedly approaches the fence, it
seems he can’t, or doesn’t feel he can, jump over. After a while a
couple of stable hands coax him back to the stable. I’m thinking that
Ariel would love all this – and would be describing what kind of
horses they were, and would see what is really going on. I mention to
Khalid that my fiancée would be fascinated.  He likes riding and his
son is active, but Dina is not keen – probably like me, she feels
uncomfortable bouncing up and down on this poor animal that has to bear
your weight? (Ariel will correct me on this.)

Thinking of the baby sequence we’d shot earlier that day, I ask Khalid
if he was nervous when Dina was born. He thinks for a moment, then tells
me he wasn’t there for her birth. Then he tells me he was in prison. I
wait for him to tell me more and he says that the Israelis held him for
four years. Dina was born 15 days after his arrest and he didn’t see
her until she was 4 years old. This all happened about 20 years ago.

I ask him how he was treated in prison – he didn’t quite get my
question the first time – but then tells me a long story – I was
naturally curious.

He said he had been part of an organization – he didn’t name it, and
I didn’t have enough time afterwards to follow up – it was during
the first Intifada during the late 1980s.

(I’m guessing it was more a poltically driven group than religious,
Khalid mentioned he’d not observed Ramadan until three
years ago and only does so now to give a good example to his children).

He prefaces his story by strongly indicating how much he now distrusts
politicians in Gaza – the games and the “bullshit” – and that he
decided – that he announced – during this period, to everyone who
would listen, that he was joining a new organization: when they asked
what it was he said: “the organization of the family”.  He decided
that from that time on he would live for his family.  Now 45, he was 25
at the time.

Khalid indicated that he had had a fair degree of responsibility in the
“organization.” I wanted to ask if he’d used weapons or if he’d
killed anyone – but this wasn’t the moment. (The irony is that I am
just completing a piece about an Algerian rebel/terrorist who gave up
terrorism and was definitely involved in shootings and killings –
mainly with the military I think).  I still don’t know – but maybe
some day, if I see him again, I’ll ask.

At this point Dina said (she could speak reasonable English) only half
jokingly, “Oh now Francis will think you are a terrorist,” – and
then later – “I bet he’s glad he’s leaving tomorrow!”  I said
that it was quite the opposite – I was sad I was having to leave so
quickly – which was genuine.

What had happened in prison?

Khalid told me he had initially been held in Gaza’s central prison.
For the second part of his incarceration, he was held in a prison in
Beer Sheba in southern Israel.

First of all he said he was kept in a “Frigidaire” which I assume
was some kind of cold room or refrigerator. It was very cold he said. I
think he was kept there for 15 days.

Then after that he was taken out and some kind of hood was placed over
him – a long hood that came down half his body. He said it smelt very
bad. He doesn’t know how long this went on – he lost all sense of
days and nights. He wasn’t allowed to sleep.

He could hear the screams of people in other cells begging for mercy,
saying “enough! I can’t take it anymore!”

There were frequent beatings. He stood up and showed us another thing he
was made to do: he crouched down, with his knees pressed together, in a
squat, with his upper leg at a horizontal angle.  If he sank down at
all, or if he allowed his knees to part in the slightest, he was struck.

Another technique: his hands were tied behind his back, and he was
pushed backwards – I assume against a wall, and then someone would sit
on his stomach.

He rolled up his trousers legs and showed me his left knee – it
appeared that part of the bone of his left kneecap was missing.

Through all this his daughter and wife looked on with a smile that I
couldn’t quite decipher – I’m sure they are proud of him, but was
it too painful for them to do anything other than smile? I’m sure too
that they are familiar with the story – perhaps after 20 years, they
have become more comfortable with the re-telling – I couldn’t tell.

This period went on for 45 days.  He was kept in some kind of tiny cell
for 20 days – no bathroom. He could hardly move. He began to smell
very bad. One of his jailors grabbed his shirt and told him he stank –
and ordered him to have a shower. He was taken out – Khalid was elated
because this would give him the chance to do stretch his arms and body,
do a little exercise. He was taken to a shower – before the water was
turned on, he took some shampoo and spread it on his head. At that
moment, the door to the shower was opened, a jailor cursed at him and
struck him with a stick or a hose (I’m not quite sure which). He was
taken back to his tiny cell with the shampoo still in his hair – but
he hadn’t touched a drop of water.

What did they want to know?

They wanted to know who he worked with, where were the machine guns?
What was the organization doing?

He didn’t tell them anything. I asked him how that was possible. He
said he had made a promise not to divulge anything about the
organization and he kept to it. One day, his jailors brought in a man
who he knew. The man told the jailors that Khalid was an organizer in
the group. Khalid denied everything and said that the man was naming him
because he had some personal motive.

Khalid told me he was pretty sure the Israelis knew everything about
him, even though he didn’t give them anything.

In the years he stayed in jail after this initial experience, he changed
his mind – and decided he wanted to live for his family and that he
didn’t believe in what he called political games.

He said he loved his wife because she waited for him for 4 years.  He
told me that in prison he dreamed of his daughter touching his face.

Eventually, the Israelis interviewed him. They had established through
their own sources that he had changed his outlook. They told him he
could go free, so long as he kept out of politics.  He told them had
changed his views – not because of what they had done to him, but
because HE had decided to change his life.

Not long after his release he began working for television. He covered
major news conferences with Israeli leaders such as Ariel Sharon, and
Netanyahu. He got work with ABC news – and built up 17 years behind
him covering Gaza news stories.

While we were sitting next to the paddock, his fifteen year old son
Mohammed approached with a couple of friends. Khalid joked with them,
and pressed his hand against his son’s chest in a kind of loving slap.
His son’s eyes lit up. I said hello, and after a couple of minutes
the teenagers moved on.

Khalid tells me he is very frightened Mohammed will get involved with
Hamas or some other organization – he says it’s a very dangerous
age. Khalid is working hard on trying to steer him to other things –
he’s encouraging him to get involved at the riding school and stables.

Khalid told me why he first got involved with the organization. When he
was a teenager in Gaza a group of Israeli soldiers approached him and
ordered him to kiss a donkey. He refused and was beaten. He saw other
people being forced to kiss a donkey and the Israeli soldiers laughing.
He remembers being frisked in the street, and as he put his hands up
against the wall, the soldier began kicking him.  “They push you, they
push you to do these things,” he said.

He told me that it was impossible to watch with your arms folded while
your family, your friends and neighbours were shot at.  He was said it
would have been abnormal NOT to have done anything. He remembers times
in Gaza during Israeli incursions where you would certainly have been
shot if you crossed the street.

Now he says, the Israeli authorities know him well – they know he has
covered many events for television, including filming senior Israelis
and he doesn’t have a problem getting a visa to travel- although going
to Jerusalem or the West Bank is still not possible.

He says that today he has quite a few Israeli friends and that they
respect him and he respects them.

He was given the chance to work in the Gulf, but he didn’t like
working there – he felt disconnected, not really alive – and so he
returned to Gaza.

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