Writer Mahmoud Jouda fled Gaza: ‘The pain is too great, this war is too horrible’

Writer Mahmoud Jouda fled Gaza: ‘The pain is too great, this war is too horrible’

Context is a loaded concept these days. Placing ‘context’ on Hamas’ attack against Israel on October 7 can easily be dismissed as ‘condoning terrorism’. The Israeli government and its allies see the devastating bombardment of Gaza primarily as a response to this Hamas attack. Critics point to the long history of oppression and violence against Palestinians.

That context is long and probably complicated, but the Dutch public can turn to the novel for a very concrete and current part of it. A garden for lost legs by the Palestinian psychologist and writer Mahmoud Jouda. The 2020 novel was published this week in a Dutch translation.

The book focuses on the so-called ‘Great March of Return’. These were weekly demonstrations in the Gaza Strip at the separation fence with Israel in 2018 and 2019. Palestinians demonstrated against the blockade of the Gaza Strip, and to demand the right of return to the villages from which their ancestors came around the founding of the State of Israel were expelled in 1948.

Israel positioned snipers along the border during the demonstrations, with orders to shoot at demonstrators who approached the fence, according to Israeli human rights group Btselem. Over a year and a half, more than 200 Palestinians were killed and many thousands were injured. The vast majority of the victims were unarmed civilians who posed no threat to the soldiers, Btselem writes. The UN wrote in reports that Israel violated international law with its violence against demonstrators and may have committed crimes against humanity. More than a thousand Palestinians had gunshot wounds in their limbs, some of which had to be amputated.

Jouda is from Gaza City. Two months ago he fled Gaza for Egypt. He lives with his wife and two young children in an apartment in the residential area of ​​Nasser City, just half an hour by metro from the center of Cairo. He suggests meeting at a café around the corner. But as soon as we have ordered, the volume of the television on the terrace goes up for a football match. I can’t understand him anymore. At his home, on a couch in front of an old television in an otherwise empty living room, we continue the conversation.

The Palestinians who were mutilated during the demonstrations are central to Jouda’s novel. “I felt like the whole city was on crutches,” he says. “It was my duty to write about the victims and the suffering.”

A garden for lost legs is made up of conversations with victims about questions such as why they demonstrated, how they were injured and what effect the mutilation had on their lives. The book is written from the first person, an alter ego of Jouda who collects and records the stories. The people and their stories that appear in the book are based on reality, says Jouda. He chose the novel form to connect the stories through a plot. He also wanted to give himself the freedom to change names and timelines. The conversations with the mutilated alternate with reflections from the writer himself and a recurring dream about a garden where the amputated limbs are buried.

A novel offered the opportunity to tell the personal stories behind the demonstrations and mutilations. Jouda primarily wanted to record the suffering, he says, “so that it is not lost.”

The book starts with Ibrahim. He has been shot in the groin, no longer gets excited by girls swimming in the sea, no longer feels like a ‘man’, and attempts suicide. Another mutilated man, Samih, breaks off his engagement because he does not want his beloved to stay with him out of pity, and he wants her to have a better life. In the next instance, the engagement is broken off by the other party. “Go to the barbed wire and die there, what should I do with you now that you only have one leg,” he is told.

Jouda leaves little to the imagination. Blood, gaping gunshot wounds and severed limbs pour from the pages. But the book also provides a valuable insight into what life in Gaza under the blockade is like. There is only a few hours of electricity per day, and there is a lack of basic facilities and goods, from clean drinking water to building materials and medical supplies, such as crutches, artificial legs and refrigerated moratoriums.

The blockage has a ‘suffocating’ effect. The mutilated people that the first person visits are mostly young people, from neighborhoods where unemployment is high and their lives are hopeless. Hassan, the first person’s best friend, says: “Our lives were one monotonous repetition, which drove some to suicide or drug addiction in the hope that something would change. We were not aware that we were alive.”

Jouda was born in 1985 and has therefore experienced the Second Intifida (uprising), the takeover of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the subsequent blockade and the wars of 2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021. “Life became worse in Gaza after the blockade. Travel was no longer allowed, the availability of food and drinks became more limited,” he says.

During the Israeli bombings in 2014, Jouda worked as a psychologist in schools and shelters. During the current war he could not afford that. “The pain is too great, this war is too horrible,” he says. Shortly after October 7, Jouda fled Gaza City with his wife and two young children, heading for Rafah in the south. He was able to move in with family there. His house in Gaza has been destroyed. Jouda shows pictures of a collapsed building on his phone. In March they fled further, to Egypt.

What made you decide to leave?

“There was no drinking water, no food, no electricity. We drank dirty water from the tap, and even that was scarce. Rafah is small, before the war the city had 370,000 inhabitants, now it has 1.4 million. The city is full of tents and flooded with sewage. Our house in Rafah was also hit by a rocket. We had no place to stay anymore. Life in a tent is very hard. Children get diseases, there are no medicines, no hospitals. We had no other option but to go to Cairo and wait until the war is over and we can return.”

Do you want to stay in Egypt?

“No. Israel wants to relocate Gaza residents. But it is our country, we cannot leave it behind. We will rebuild our homes and build a new life. We love Gaza very much. My whole life is there.”

How do you talk to your children about what happened?

“We cannot lie to our children. We explain that Israel has occupied our country and is waging war against us. They need to understand what it really is like. If we don’t explain it, someone else will explain it wrong. My family explained it to me when I was a child, and now I do the same. Even now that we are here in Cairo, the sound of planes scares them. They still think it is Israeli planes coming to bomb us.”

Isn’t it depressing that almost all Palestinian literature is about occupation, oppression and war?

“That is a very important point. The occupation limits our writing. As a novelist I should write about love, the good, the beautiful, but Israel’s actions force me to write about war, suffering and death. I do not want that. I wish this book didn’t exist. I would like to write something that makes people happy. That there is a beautiful life in Gaza. Gaza is also beautiful. But I can’t write about that now.”

Why did you choose the image of ‘a garden for lost legs’?

“The novel is based on the idea that all amputated legs should not be lost. I imagined that all the limbs, heads and other body parts, would be buried on the border, and flowers and trees planted above. A whole garden full of trees, with a limb under each tree.”