I‘ve known of Kassim Kafarneh for many years. His thick, wild beard is now neatly trimmed and his once unruly black hair is combed in an orderly fashion. His spirit, however, is as free as the day I saw him filming in our refugee camp one Friday afternoon, 17 years ago.
I know for sure it was a Friday. Hamas was a young faction that had just emerged on the scene of the Palestinian Intifada of 1987. They declared their presence in a statement that was read exactly 80 days after the outbreak of the uprising, from under a large water tower, adjacent to my old house in the Nuseirat refugee camp.
It was there, by the graveyard of the martyrs, that a masked man covered with a shabbily sewn black and green garment, recited the declaration of the establishment of Hamas. A group of children cheered with giddiness and excitement. Grown-ups stood puzzled.
"A pathetic attempt to reintroduce the Muslim Brotherhood back to Palestinians," a cynic murmured.
Soon the crowd dispersed. My father, as overly anxious as he always was, herded us into the house. He smelled trouble.
A few days later, following the Friday sermon, Hamas held its first "military rally" in the camp. Scores of masked refugee youth, armed with clubs and holding posters of intifada martyrs marched in place. There were so many of them, surrounded by a large crowd, mostly worshipers astonished by the unanticipated after-prayer surprise. There, too, was Kassim, Gaza’s only TV journalist, filming from the top of a parked Coca-Cola truck.
One of the camp’s self-declared political analysts, and they are many, deduced that this newly formed Hamas must be on to something big if they managed to drag the Strip’s only cameraman to film their rally. Strange as it may sound, he was right.
I met Kassim nearly two decades later. Now, he runs a successful media company of well-trained Gazan journalists. They supply raw news feeds to numerous television outlets around the world. I met him unexpectedly in a shopping mall in some Arab capital, far away from the camp’s old mosque and the martyrs’ graveyard.
"I hate the mall culture," he complained, while protectively clutching a cigarette he longed to smoke. As we hurried outside the mall searching for an open space where Kassim could smoke, memories began to fall into place, united around that Friday afternoon, 17 years ago.
Much has changed since then. My mother died soon after the outbreak of the first uprising. She was buried not too far away from the water tower, which was also often used by Israeli troops as a lookout post. Our house is still standing near what was later named "Red Square", for soon hundreds of the camp’s kids would be killed and injured there. And I was soon to depart, carrying with me the weight of a shattered childhood, the echo of tens of thousands of bullets, the haunting screams of angry Israeli soldiers and the cries of beleaguered children, calling on God for help while being beaten senseless.
"You’re home free, Kassim, smoke the day away!" I said with some wit in a desperate attempt to break the overpowering chain of memories, as we drove away in search of an open coffee shop. I had no idea that I was inviting a typical Gazan psychoanalysis of what is so sacred and holy about a cigarette.
"It’s an unconditional relationship, Ramzy. A cigarette will never turn its back on you," he said.
I didn’t dare disagree, especially when the conversation drifted to the joy of slipping a cigarette into an Israeli prison where thousands of Palestinian political prisoners are still confined. That area was far too revered a subject for me to meddle in. So, I held my peace.
Kassim is also a US citizen. He could leave Gaza at any moment, if he wishes. But he chooses to stay. "If we all leave who will stay to tell the story," he said, in a prudent voice that highlighted the white hair encroaching on his head from various spots. He looked haggard and hardly smiled.
It hurts living in Gaza. It always has. Even those in the equally distraught West Bank pitied us Gazans. For one, the Strip was labeled, "the world’s largest open-air prison", and my old neighborhood was for a long while known as the "starvation camp.” We earned this title after the first Gulf War when Israel staged a 56-day curfew in most of the Gaza Strip and we ran out of food some days after its wake. If it wasn’t for some wild grasses and bushes that had grown sparsely around the camp, God only knows what would’ve happened.
Kassim finally got to smoke his cigarette in style, followed by 20 others. I inhaled my share of unwanted smoke and uninvited, bittersweet memories. His stress augmented whenever he spoke of going back. It was not Gaza that frightened him. It was the Israeli-controlled border.
"I swear to God, they treat us like animals. No, in fact animals get better treatment than this and will find many who will defend them. I get sick to my stomach when I think of the humiliation I will endure at the border and always fall ill for days after I make my way in."
Last August over 3,000 Palestinian travelers were crammed into a tiny space at the border in an act of collective punishment, for 16 consecutive days. And it was only last week that Israel agreed to expose only "suspected" travelers to its radioactive screening, responsible for an untold number of illnesses.
It was heartening to see Kassim’s fighting spirit at an age where there are many wealthy Palestinians ready to sign off Palestinian rights to the last inch and to the last refugee. It was touching to wish that tireless fighter goodbye, as he was ready to embrace his camera and embark on the endless journey of "telling the story.”
"Just for the record, Kassim, you really were our hero growing up in the camps," I said. He nodded bashfully and clutched onto another cigarette, the last in an empty pack.