The other side of Gaza: Swimming, canoeing and ‘trying’ to be a child

The other side of Gaza: Swimming, canoeing and 'trying' to be a child

Gaza, Palestine – We hear a whistle … and a smiling, freckled face with greying beard, comes to meet us.

Abu Ayman is arguably the best-known lifeguard in Gaza.

It’s just past 9am and the air is heavy with humidity. The sun reflects off the beach – it’s hot.

The water is a turquoise blue, the sand a bright white – switch off your mind, and for a moment you may just forget where you are.

Abu Ayman takes us to a swimming pool, just behind the beach. It’s covered from the sun with a wooden thatched roof. The dappled shade reflects off eleven young boys who stand on the side, waiting for his orders to jump in.

One wears oversized, mirrored goggles, almost covering his slight face. Another wears a smaller pair, baby blue. There are pink goggles, too.

Abu Ayman whistles, they all jump in – one smacks the water in what looks like a searingly painful belly flop.

They tread water – hands above their heads – and keep looking at the camera with massive grins – we keep telling them to ignore us.

It’s such a normal moment – children having swimming lessons, playing around. Certainly not worthy of international news.

The beach has served as a distraction for people living in Gaza [Stefanie Dekker/Al Jazeera]

‘Fun and not war’

But here in Gaza, I want to tell this story. To show our audience a piece of a normal life, away from Hamas, or Israel’s “terror” rhetoric, away from the diplomatic efforts, the political bargaining, away from the weekly Friday protests. Just show you something normal.

Swimming lessons are certainly not for everyone either – you have to pay – hardly anyone here can afford this luxury.

But these days it is impossible to report on life in Gaza, without mentioning the crippling effects of the siege – including the sanctions imposed on Gaza by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The economy has ground to a halt – many salaries have been cut by 50 percent – and people forced into early retirement. A lot of it is due to Palestinian in-fighting.

Abu Ayman tells us he can’t make ends meet – he has eight children. His meagre salary now only comes in half. It’s a struggle the majority are enduring – there is plenty of food, the supermarkets are full and fresh fruits line the streets – but few are buying.

After the pool session – we follow the boys down to the beach. Abu Ayman takes them into the sea. They crash into the waves. They clearly love it. In the distance we see Israeli navy boats using water cannon.

We don’t often see them so close – but the fishing restrictions on fisherman here have recently been tightened. Only three nautical miles for now. We can only assume – with quite a lot of certainty – that a Palestinian fishing boat got close to the invisible line Israel deems they may not cross.

The boys are having fun. Abu Ayman says he feels like they release their worries and depressions into the water-like mental relief. He says they become children again. Even the worries and problems of adults are endured by the very young here.

Children try to enjoy a normal life, away from Israel’s bombs and snipers [Stefanie Dekker/Al Jazeera]

Disrupted lifestyle

But stand on this beach, and ignore the Israeli navy in the distance, and ignore the fact that raw sewage flows uninterrupted into the sea (due to a severe lack of electricity and the means to process it), and you do see normal life.

Boys on canoes – they tip over and howl with laughter.

A young man working on his front crawl. Further down the beach, a group of boys throw a ball around in the water.

A young girl’s head emerges from the waves, her face framed by a coffee coloured headscarf. She passes both her hands over her eyes to clear the water, and it almost looks as if she is saying a prayer.

We finish filming and Abu Ayman insists we come upstairs for coffee. We sit overlooking the water – it’s stunning. We have the deck all to ourselves.

Gaza has 45km of coastline. Abu Ayman talks about how he remembers working in Israel in the 80s – it’s where he started as a lifeguard. He talks about how Israelis and Egyptians would come to Gaza for the weekend to enjoy the seafood. It seems impossible to imagine.

I take a picture of Safwat, our producer, as he is on the phone. The ridiculous blue waters frame him – it’s an idyllic shot.

Then a roar through the sky. An Israeli F-16 seems to be flying up and down for a while. A young man joins us, and without asking, you can see its Abu Ayman’s son. The same freckled face, the same colouring. He studied mechanical engineering for two years at university but had to drop out. Abu Ayman can’t afford the fees.

“Is tough,” Abu Ayman says to me in English, then looks down. There is palpable pain in his eyes.

As we leave, we pass by the pool again. Abu Ayman asks his son to show us his crawl. He has a beautiful crawl. Abu Ayman watches him slice through the water, then turns and asks how it measures up. Excellent, we all agree. He is beamingly proud.

We say our goodbyes and leave.

Spending a few hours filming on a beach in our line of work is usually a massive pick me up. But nothing is uplifting in Gaza these days. I wanted to show our viewers a slice of life, a sense of normalcy, introduce them to fathers and sons, kids with dreams. And it’s utterly depressing.