The nerve-wracking genre of the war diary has one slim consolation: the reader knows what the diarist does not – how the war will end. Whether we're reading Mary Chestnut's entries on the daily tensions of a battered and failing Confederacy or Victor Klemperer's account of the slow strangulation of life under the Nazis, the reader can remember what the diarist didn't know while scribbling entries late at night: the complete shape of the thing. Appomattox Courthouse. VE Day.
There's none of that consolation in The Drone Eats with Me, Atef Abu Saif's new book from Beacon Press detailing the ordeal he and his family went through in Gaza in 2014. Saif, a novelist born in Gaza's Jabalia refugee camp in 1973, was living in the Saftawi district with his wife Hannah and their children when Israel launched “Operation Protective Edge” on July 8 of 2014 with aerial bombardments and followed it up a week later with a ground invasion. The Israeli government cited as its instigation the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers by Hamas in June of that year, and the reprisals were fierce: Hundreds of rockets fell on Gaza, many on residential neighborhoods. In the 51-day conflict that ensued, 66 Israeli soldiers were killed and 87 civilians wounded. In contrast, over 2300 Gazans were killed, and well over 10,000 wounded, the vast majority civilians.
Saif's short, indelibly memorable book chronicles his family's day-to-day experience of living through Operation Protective Edge, which for all adult Gazans was just the latest in a nearly-unbroken string of such hostilities. Wars, Saif recounts with the kind of gently barbed melancholy that runs throughout his book, are the benchmarks of Gazan life. “There's one planted firmly in your childhood, one or two more in your adolescence, and so on ... they toll the passing of time as you grow older like rings in a tree trunk.”
But the 2014 war very prominently featured a horrific new innovation: drones. Their omnipresence during this brief war quickly worked its way into both the everyday vocabulary of Gazan civilians (who coined the word “zanana” for them, imitating the deep buzzing noise they make) and into their deeper anxieties. “In the dark, you can almost believe they're in your bedroom with you, behind the curtains, above the wardrobe,” Saif writes. “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.” Imagining the soldiers safe in Israel operating these drones at computer screens as though the whole thing were a great new video game provokes our gentle author to a rare flash of bitter anger.
In the midst of the bombings and air strikes, some semblance of regular life tries to reassert itself in Gaza. During lulls in the violence, fresh fruits and vegetables begin to reappear in the neighborhood markets, and Saif's children pester their parents to let them spend time in internet cafes. Saif's son Naeem worries about missing school (“I have such a geek for a son!” his father jokingly laments), and his son Mostafa is eager to keep up with the latest international soccer results. The family watches Sponge Bob Square Pants during rare intervals of working electricity. But Saif pays a heavy price for safeguarding as much of his children's innocence as he can. He looks into the eyes of his 19-month-old daughter Jaffa and vows she won't live her life as a refugee, “And yet at night, my most common nightmare during this war has been of me, running between shells and explosions, carrying Jaffa in my arms.”
Operation Protective Edge ended on August 26, and the news of a peace agreement is met with exhausted relief in the Saftawi district, where the war had become “an everyday song, forever playing in the background.” Residents all over Gaza slowly began piecing their lives back together, rebuilding their shattered homes and schools, caring for their wounded, doing what they can to restore normal routines, and after the initial celebrations in the streets ended, the somber postwar reality settles in. Saif touches only briefly on that reality – thousands of bombed-out families still living in emergency shelters, a runaway rental market gouging astronomical rents out of displaced people, the scarcity of the raw materials necessary to rebuild flattened homes and scorched farms and orchards – but those details underscore the bleak difference between a Gaza diary and most other specimens of the genre. Victor Klemperer and Mary Chestnut may have recorded similar portions of ruin and destitution in their war diaries, but at least their wars were over: Their future, however uncertain, wouldn't include the Third Reich or the Confederacy.
Not so Gaza, of course. Just this last May, large-scale violence erupted again, with Hamas launching mortars and Israel launching air strikes and Gaza civilians being caught in the crossfire as always. In many ways, the saddest thing about "The Drone Eats with Me" is how long it's likely to remain timely.