The Angels of Gaza

(Based on true and almost true events)

Gaza AI

the weeping is an immense angel,
the weeping is an immense violin,
the tears muzzle the wind,
nothing else is heard but the weeping.

From “Casida of the Lament” by Federico Garcia Lorca,
translated by Stephen Spender and J.L. Gili.

I met an old man in downtown Amman.
He asked if he could join me at my table
in a café near the mosque of King Hussein.
My name is Dr. Abdullah al-Haitham, he said. I have come from Gaza.
The doctor wore a somber brown suit
with matching tie and neatly folded pocket square,
and spoke flawless English with a faint British accent.

For some reason, our conversation turned to angels.
Belief in angels is central to Islam, he told me.
Jibreel, or Gabriel, is the greatest of all.
It was he who revealed the words of Allah
to Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him),
and from these revelations was born the Holy Qur’an.
He paused, lost in something he alone could hear.

I wanted to know about Gaza
and how the people were managing to survive.
Not long ago, the doctor said, before the latest war,
many if not most people in Gaza
believed in the active presence of angels
and their role in guarding and guiding humans.
Angels remind us of the world beyond our senses.

It was thought that angels were unseen companions.
They guided the fishermen to places in the sea
where they were sure to bring home a good catch.
On land, the angels worked side by side with farmers.
In the fall the angels helped pick the olives
and carry them in bags to the nearest press.
The harvest was their favorite time of year — after Ramadan.

Later, when the oranges had ripened,
the angels would be in the fields hard at work,
loading the picked fruit into buckets and cardboard boxes.
Fellow workers may have offered them something to eat,
perhaps one or two of the ripest oranges,
but they always politely declined
since angels neither eat nor drink.

The angels could look like ordinary people,
and no one, no matter how perceptive,
could tell who was or was not an angel.
But they were certainly there
from one end of the Strip to the other,
doing what they could to make life
a little easier, a little sweeter.

Then came Operation Cast Lead, the doctor added,
bringing his chair closer to mine. That was in 2008
when Israel assaulted Gaza by land, sea, and air,
killing nearly 1,400 Palestinians.
Most of the dead were civilians, and of these
over 300 were under the age of 18.
Israel declared a ceasefire three weeks later.

Something shifted in people’s hearts, he continued.
More than ever, they needed to believe in angels
and to embrace their faith as the surest safeguard
from despair in the face of the enemy’s latest onslaught
and their indifference to Palestinian lives.
It was only natural that people searched for light
in times of exceeding darkness and destruction.

During the fighting, a farmer in northern Gaza
was rushing his wife to the hospital.
They stopped at the first checkpoint.
The farmer had forgotten his papers
and was ordered to turn back.
“But my wife is having our baby,” he told them.
“She must see a doctor.”

The soldiers wouldn’t let them pass.
Nothing the husband said made any difference.
He drove a short way down the road
then parked his truck under a date palm
and helped his wife climb in the back
where he had spread a blanket
over a thin piece of cardboard.

By now her contractions were stronger
and coming more frequently.
Her husband didn’t know what to do
but hold her hand and pray to God.
It was then that a woman in black showed up.
“My name is Yusra,” she said.
“I can help your wife.”

She told them she was a midwife.
“Your hands are empty,” the farmer said.
“You have no bandages, no clean water, and nothing for pain.”
But something in the woman’s eyes
told him to trust her just the same.
“Leave us,” she said.
“I will call you when we’re done.”

That day the couple’s child was born
in the back of the old flatbed truck.
When the farmer returned,
their baby was wrapped in a clean sheet of muslin
and sleeping in her mother’s arms.
Yusra the midwife was gone;
there was no sign of her anywhere.

The farmer told his friends
and everyone in his family
what had happened.
The story spread by word of mouth,
and each time it was told,
the teller added more details,
more embellishments.

In time it became the story of an angel
who helped a poor farmer and his wife.
It didn’t take long for others to claim
an angel had helped them too.
Like the day soldiers were about to bulldoze
a grove of olive trees during the harvest
when the bulldozer suddenly stalled.

Surely, an angel must have pulled the spark plugs
or caused the steering clutch to freeze.
Was it an angel who also helped a young man
recover his bride’s engagement ring
after Israeli settlers set fire to the hall
where the couple had celebrated their wedding?
The ring was all that remained of her.

These days, people no longer speak of angels.
For now, the light in Gaza is gone,
and angels are made of light
as it says in the Qur’an.
The angels may still be present,
but the darkness that has taken so many lives
is too much even for the greatest of angels.

Shall we go for a walk, the doctor said, taking my arm.
He wanted to show me the city’s ancient Roman theater.
How is it possible to believe in angels, he continued,
when people are suffering needlessly,
when there are no anesthetics for the wounded,
when children are blown apart
by U.S. and Western weapons in Israeli hands.

Maybe the angels, and I’m sure there were many,
had seen too much suffering, he said,
had realized the limits of their power,
and could do nothing but weep
for entire families obliterated,
for the burned, maimed survivors
of yet another maniacal rampage.

Can this be the will of God? Dr. al-Haitham wondered.
looking up at the green lights from the minaret.
We reached the Roman theater by sunset
and sat side by side on the top tier.
I am afraid, he said, there will be nothing left.
The land will always be there,
but the people will be gone.

The old man turned toward me.
Listen, my friend, he said,
when the noise of the city recedes,
I hear it plainly — a sound like no other.
It comes from the deepest place in the human soul.
The cry of a hunger, not for bread alone
but something no angel could ever provide.

After a long silence, he took my hand as I took his.
He said something in Arabic then got up to leave.
But when I looked for him, he was nowhere to be seen.

George Capaccio is a writer, poet, and performer now living in Durham, North Carolina since migrating from the Boston area. Beginning in the 90s, his concern for the people of Iraq under U.S.-imposed sanctions led him to make numerous trips to Iraq as a witness to the effects of these sanctions. At home, he advocated for their lifting through writing and public speaking while raising funds for families in Baghdad whom he knew and with whom he continues to stay in touch.

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