Fathers and Sons in Gaza
Yasser Abu Jamei, the director of the Gaza Community Mental Health Program (G.C.M.H.P.), was not with his extended family when, around dinnertime, an air strike leveled their three-story home in the southern Gaza Strip city of Khan Younis. Three stories might sound lavish for a single family, but more than two dozen relatives shared this house. Arrangements like this are typical in Gaza—usually one floor for each adult sibling’s family. A number of members of the extended Abu Jamei family had left for the southern Gaza Strip earlier that day. It was thought to be safer. From the rubble, the bodies of nineteen children and three pregnant women were pulled out. In total, twenty-eight of Yasser’s relatives had been killed, the most in a single air strike in this war so far.
I know Yasser Abu Jamei well because my father, Dr. Eyad Sarraj, was his manager, mentor, fellow-countryman, and friend. My father was the Gaza Strip’s first psychiatrist and the founder of the G.C.M.H.P. He passed away, late last year, after living with multiple myeloma for longer than his doctors expected. I worked alongside him between 2009 and 2014. During these years, he was at his worst, physically, but his optimism was irrepressible. Gaza attracts a broad spectrum of visitors, and my father’s reputation as an “independent” and largely accessible interlocutor led many to his home. Whether it was for breaking the siege with a fleet of boats from Cyprus, planting trees to beautify the Strip, organizing a cleanup of the beach, or providing a dinner and neutral zone for dignitaries to eat fish along with Gaza’s sidelined leaders, he was almost certainly on board. Gaza was his home, the beach his back garden. He wanted Gaza to be, well, nice.
Hearing the news about the Abu Jamei family brought me back to the constant dilemma, for families like ours, of whether to stay or go. If my father were alive today, he would stay put. This is in spite of his possession of a British passport, the only document that might get a Palestinian in Gaza to safety during times like these. The stand that he took in this regard always caused me great distress. Watching Israel bomb Gaza in 2009 from afar—at the time, I lived in England—my brother and I urged our father to leave. By 2012, I was in Gaza and, during Operation Pillar of Defense that November, I would declare to him that, in the case of a ground invasion, the whole family would have to leave. He would never respond, and his silence hurt me deeply. At that point, I would get up from his bedside—the bed which, during his illness, had become his office—trying to suppress my resentment. He finally admitted that he couldn’t leave Gaza; he simply couldn’t. It was unthinkable. I began to wonder about the responsibilities of parents who commit themselves to jobs for money, for ambition, or to provide a comfortable life. Was my father’s case the same? Was it different? Operation Pillar of Defense came to a halt the day before the evacuation that I had organized for the family. The question of a father’s duty was placed on hold.
The G.C.M.H.P. isn’t only a center for providing treatment for the cyclical traumas of Gaza’s society, which has been subjected to three wars in the past six years alone. It has also, from its founding, trained Gaza’s future mental-health practitioners. This was an area that my father—the president of the G.C.M.H.P. until his death, though he retired after the 2009 war—took great interest in, not merely from a professional perspective but also as he considered the future of his land and people. It’s no secret that, on its current course of blockade and occupation, Gaza’s trajectory is bleak. How could he instill hope—hope that he had maintained a particular talent for—in these “rising stars”? Perhaps the hardest part was convincing them to stay. But, of course, Yasser Abu Jamei, like the rest of Gaza, did not stay because of my father. He stayed because, unlike my father but like the 1.8 million Palestinians he and G.C.M.H.P. tend to, he doesn’t have the luxury of choosing to leave.
A few years ago, during a video conference call with colleagues in the West Bank, I was asked if I was related to Dr. Eyad Sarraj. I answered that he was my father. The questioner responded, “He is the father of all Palestinians!” During my time in Gaza, I was always curious to see how my father responded to his reputation, and how he managed his relations with attachés, U.N. chiefs, and world leaders, retired or otherwise. His intuitive analysis of Palestine was filled with the richness of a life lived there—one that the U.N. representatives et al could never quite appreciate, despite their multitudes of official reports and data sets. The world leaders would arrive at our home in armored convoys while their security personnel took up “strategic” positions, straining their necks to talk discreetly into their communication devices. When you are this close to power, it is hard to avoid the seductive impression that you are at the very center of change. Even Tony Blair, the Quartet on the Middle East’s peace envoy and ultimate change maker, was a phone call away from my father. But then the violence would resume. The personal meetings that had gone so well, the ones where visitors listened so carefully and shared our concerns so sympathetically, were quickly flattened into messages calling for all sides to show “restraint.”
Local Palestinians would ask my father what the future held for Gaza. He always answered, often suggesting that Obama would “green-light” something that would lay the groundwork for the lifting of the blockade. My father was right to assign the key decisions to the United States. He was, as it turned out, wrong to place his hopes in Obama. But that judgment misses the point. My father’s was a case of pathological optimism. And his positive regard for visiting activists and researchers comforted and energized not just him but everyone around him, especially his successors at G.C.M.H.P., Abu Jamei among them.
My father was a mental-health professional first and a peacemaker second. The lines he drew between his roles (chosen or not) were naturally blurred. What drew them together and persisted in him, though, was his hope. It was infectious, but above all it was comforting—comforting during a time of absolute powerlessness: a powerlessness felt by all, but perhaps by no one more than the Palestinians of Gaza, something my father understood and, in his small ways, sought to treat.
Even now, after the bombing, Yasser tells me that he will try to steer G.C.M.H.P. on the path that Dr. Eyad, as he was invariably called, set. Some observers might call this typical steadfastness, or samoud: a sort of mystical quality often used to describe Palestinians, particularly at times like these. But it doesn’t seem honest to speak of steadfastness, really. Rather, it’s a question of Yasser and the many other mental-health practitioners who will be so needed in the wake of yet another war, who have no choice but to stay in Gaza and deal with unspeakable tragedies not only in other’s lives but in their own, honoring my father’s mission as they do so. That’s not steadfastness or samoud. That’s life.