But why the sea? all we know is there is a 20-year-old man, Mohammad al-Khatib, from al-Khalil. And he loved the sea and wanted to visit it with his friends. We can therefore assume that he deliberated at length over the question: how to get there? But under the present circumstances, we can only imagine two possibilities of a sea that Mohammad al-Khatib is able to visit.
The first possibility is the sea of Gaza. As its name quite literarily indicates, the sea of Gaza can only be accessed today by those who find themselves there. So how can Mohammad al-Khatib get there?
He first needs to reach Allenby Bridge in order to cross the Israeli-controlled border to Jordan, and so his friends, one of whom is denied entry to Jordan by the Israeli intelligence, then head to Amman airport and, from there, to Cairo airport. But before that, Mohammad al-Khatib needs to obtain a visa to enter Egypt, which is very difficult to get, yet he can try nonetheless, and he does, and so do his friends, except for one who is on the Egyptian intelligence list. From Cairo, he would have to head to al-Arish, except for his friend who is denied entry to Egypt despite having a visa since he was unfriendly to security services. From there he has to arrive in Rafah, where he will find the crossing closed and will be ordered to return to where he came from.
But then he might find someone to bring him to Gaza through the tunnels, and from there to the sea; something that is getting more and more difficult to do these days, since the Egyptian authorities waged their US- and Israel-supported war against tunnels leading to Gaza. And so, after three days of travelling, Mohammad al-Khatib will arrive, without any of his friends, at the sea of Gaza, on the 1st of September 2016 at around 5pm and will have one hour before the night falls and with it the Israeli naval artillery. But that hour with the sea is what counts. It counts sixty minutes, or three thousand and six hundred seconds; an infinite time. Who did ever count up to the number 3,600, except the waves of the sea?
The second possibility is the sea of Yafa. And to get there, we can imagine, under the present circumstances, two possibilities.
The first possibility is that Mohammad al-Khatib’s father, or his uncle or his cousin, or a close friend of one of them, or a close friend of an acquaintance of theirs, has got a connection to someone who has a high position at one of the offices of the Palestinian Authority, or is himself an informer of the lowest rank who provides the Israeli intelligence with information. That connection got Mohammad al-Khatib a permit to enter Israeli territories, except for area D, from 7am until 7pm, which allows him to visit the sea. What about his friends? Well, they are his friends, and they too got a permit, except for one who is on the Palestinian intelligence list. That day, the 1st of September 2016, they would all start early and be the first to stand at the Bethlehem checkpoint. They were delayed a bit, and one was turned back for no reason but, at around 5pm, after having been stopped here, searched there, with one arrested here, and another one arrested there, Mohammad al-Khatib arrived at the sea of Yafa; a name which is not quite literal, but metaphorical, since Yafa is many kilometres away. He has one full hour, leaving one hour for the road before his permit expires. But that hour with the sea is what counts. It counts sixty minutes, or three thousand and six hundred seconds; an infinite time. Who did ever count up to the number 3,600, except the waves of the sea?
The second possibility is that Mohammad al-Khatib’s father died, and so did his uncle, his cousin, their close friend, and the acquaintance of a close friend with a connection to someone who has a high position at one of the PA offices, or had been an informer of the lowest rank that provided the Israeli intelligence with information, who also died a while ago; but not the son of his neighbours, who needed none of these connections to reach “inside”. He works there without a permit, and he knows how to get there without a permit. And so Mohammad al-Khatib spends all night with the son of the neighbours in order to learn the “illegal” route that will allow him to get to the sea.
And we can imagine, under the present circumstances, two possibilities for an “illegal” route.
The first possibility is to drive, in a car with a yellow licence plate. Mohammad al-Khatib has a friend with such a car and with a desire to go to the sea. He leaves, with his friends, except for one who did not have a seat in the car, early in the morning from al-Khalil to Wadi al-Nar, or the Fire Valley Road, until they reach Beit Jala, except for one who gets carsick due to the many twists and turns for which this road is known. They pull out the sunglasses and kippas, and head to the tunnel checkpoint just at the rush hour, when the settlers of the south hit the road for work in Jerusalem. And since the soldiers don’t intercept the settlers, or delay them, the car passes; alas half way to the sea, the car’s engine heats up, and after a couple of hours trying to cool it and failing, the driver and another friend stay behind with the car, and Mohammad al-Khatib rides the buses to the sea. He arrives at around 5pm on the 1st of September 2016, and he has one full hour before he needs to take the buses back to al-Khalil during the rush hour when his chances of going unnoticed are higher. But that hour with the sea is what counts. It counts sixty minutes, or three thousand and six hundred seconds; an infinite time. Who did ever count up to the number 3,600, except the waves of the sea?
The second possibility is not to find a friend’s car with a yellow licence plate in the entire area of al-Khalil, so Mohammad al-Khatib and his friends need to use the “illegal” on-foot route to get to the sea.
He prepares himself, along with his friends, to leave before dawn. He heads to the south, rather than the north, to the area of al-Ramadin. There, between the hills, passes the route of the wall, still incomplete, in the form of wired fences. They get off the stolen car they had rented, and run to the fence, and run and run, all reaching it except for one friend, who loses a shoe as they run and goes back to look for it. Then, as they jump off the fence, another friend tears his jeans all the way from the back of his knees to his bottom, with blood gushing out, and he is left behind. Mohammad al-Khatib cannot be delayed, otherwise they will be caught, and he keeps running until he reaches the small white bus with a driver from Rahat, waiting with doors wide open, and once Mohammad al-Khatib enters, he leaves the scene with full speed. But the price is high, and Mohammad al-Khatib has money only for one-third of the way. With no money left, he hitchhikes to the sea, where he arrives at around 5pm on the 1st of September 2016, and he has one full hour before he needs to hitchhike back to al-Khalil. But that hour with the sea is what counts. It counts sixty minutes, or three thousand and six hundred seconds; an infinite time. Who did ever count up to the number 3,600, except the waves of the sea?
And there he is standing before the sea, where he may finally shout out loud: “I love you, sea.” And we can imagine, under the present circumstances, two possibilities for a response from the sea.
The first possibility is that the sea—upon hearing Mohammad al-Khatib’s shouts (in Arabic obviously), and glimpsing in his raised hands as he ran towards it what may resemble a knife—panicked. The sea thought Mohammad al-Khatib wanted to stab it. The reports of young men from al-Kahlil who had been suspected of planning knife attacks are too many for the sea to be cool about it. The sea calls the police to inform them about this shouting and running. But prior to the police arriving and, as time was still running, as was Mohammad al-Khatib, the sea jumps to neutralise him, and pulls him to the ground and drags him inside to contain his danger. But misfortune happens and Mohammad al-Khatib dies in the process.
The second possibility is that the sea, upon hearing Mohammad al-Khatib’s shouts (in Arabic obviously), opens its heart, since this is the sea of Yafa and it has not heard Arabic at this spot for a long time, and maybe it glimpses in the raised hands of Mohammad as he runs towards it the hug he intends to give it. Like a lover’s ear and eye, the sea does not confuse what its beloved says for the opposite. But as is often the case, once one expresses his or her love to the other, the other is bound to declare the same.
As the sea hears Mohammad al-Khatib shouting, “I love you, sea”, it calls back, “I love you too.” And the sea does not let go of Mohammad al-Khatib ever again.
This short-story was published in The Indian Quarterly magazine, Jan-Mar 2018 issue.