The Smell of Paradise

Under pressure in Gaza: a reporter's notebook
May 21, 2009

First Day

It is 10:40 on a sunny and warm Saturday morning, and time for my walk through Gaza. I take a break from people’s chattering and from traffic noise and listen to my iPod. The streets are crowded, as they always are on the first day of the week. Despite the embargo, students, salesmen, taxi drivers, police—all have things to do. I am always fascinated by the human will to go on with life despite the absence of what most people understand as normal circumstances.

I listen to Cat Stevens’s “Wild World” and smile, knowing that my friend, Smadar Perry, will soon be listening to the same tune. Smadar is a journalist at Yediot Ahronot, the Tel Aviv-based daily. She called on Friday, asking for my favorite song, because she was to be a guest at 11 a.m. on a radio station there and wanted to talk to her listeners about our friendship, and to play the music. But at a traffic light I switch to Mamma Mia!—a soundtrack for a faster and more determined pace. At 11:15 a.m., Israeli bombs begin falling, close by; bombardment is suddenly the new norm.

For a second I am frozen, then ask loudly: “Where are they bombing?” Nobody knows. And nobody knows which building will be hit next. I ask a couple, “Is there any Hamas leader living in this building?” “No!,” they reply. I run toward a cloud of smoke. One-way streets become two-way; parents run into schools to collect their kids. I jump into a taxi that is headed toward the main hospital, and ask the driver why he is going in that direction when everyone else is heading the other way. His son is a policeman, he explains. He wants to see if he is okay. “Israel is launching a war against Hamas—do you blame Hamas?” I ask him. The driver’s answer is to begin to sob.

The moment I step out of the car, something hits my head: it is the body of a policeman being carried by two men toward the emergency room. His legs are deeply cut. Another car stops with two more policemen, both missing their legs. I run to the emergency room but am blocked by what seems like dozens of bodies on the floor near the entrance—brains out, legs gone, no signs of life—all in civil police uniforms. In the corner I see a policeman who is injured but alive, and step over bodies to reach him. Several Hamas security members rise up, shouting at me to get out. I say, “You have a job to do and I have a job, too.” They leave me alone.

I’m lucky that I passed by that police station before it was bombed, I tell myself. I’m lucky, too, that I didn’t arrange to meet with the head of the police that day, since I am staring at his body. I head to the morgue, where more than a hundred bodies are laid out—I see an infant and a dead child in a school uniform—and where families are coming to search for loved ones. At these moments, you don’t want to ask questions; you just observe and write down the words that come from people’s mouths.

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I had observed the First Intifada, covered the Second Intifada, and covered the internal conflict between Hamas and Fatah, but this is different. I find my driver and make sure he has enough fuel to help me cover the war.

People want to talk. There are those who support Hamas, and those who do not. There are others who monitor what people say. I need to be quick and patient and respectful. The story is all around me.

Israel did not let any international journalists into Gaza, so I feel the weight of responsibility, the need to explain to the world what is happening. And that is one of several kinds of pressure: I want to maintain my credibility, so I work hard not to exclude any element of the story. I deal with Hamas watchers and fighters, which I know how to do. I feel the pressure of possible death from Israeli drones, F16s, helicopters, and tanks.

There are moments of fear, when I file; for a few seconds, I think, What if Israel does not like what I say? There is so much pressure from all sides—Israeli, Palestinian, American. I don’t understand why some reporters become “politically correct” in front of American officials.

There is also the pressure that comes from the people. One woman—fleeing the Israeli shelling with her children—expresses anger at the New York Times coverage, which she says is not balanced. I worry that her loud complaints will bring others. Luckily there are those who respect my work, and respect that I will go to places that many journalists avoid.

Al-Shifa is the main hospital in Gaza City, and there are faces and voices there I don’t forget. A girl declares loudly—in conservative Gaza run by an Islamic movement—that she is losing her faith in God. She blames her mother for the loss of her sister’s leg. I ask the crying mother why, and she explains that she thought it would be safer to send the girl to her uncle’s home because it is built of concrete. The concrete wasn’t much protection.

Another mother wishes aloud for the extermination of Hamas, having seen her daughter cut in half by an Israeli bomb. I pretend I didn’t hear that sentence, and then security guards ask the woman’s relatives to take her out of the hospital.

A father searches for his son, who he says is twenty-two. I listen to him talking quietly to God: I always prayed. Please save him. He is my only son. I know the guards will show sympathy when the man learns his son is dead. “He is a martyr,” they tell him later. But the father doesn’t stop talking to himself. I will cry until I die, my dear son.

Second Day

I am in the hospital interviewing a nurse. A young man orders a woman to leave. She begs to see her injured husband. I step outside and four drones are hovering above the hospital; the rumor is that the hospital will be bombed.

Suddenly, between two buildings, I hear shooting and run toward it. I find a man on a stretcher, shot in the right side of his head, his brain emerging from the left side. I express horror, and a young man—the one who had ordered the woman to leave—scolds me: “Are you horrified for an Israeli collaborator who killed resistance fighters and civilians?” I learn that the dead man is the husband of the woman who was ordered to leave; she had come to the hospital after Israel bombed Al-Saraya (the site of Gaza’s central prison), where collaborators were held.

Another man takes me aside and tells me firmly: “You never saw anything.”

“What’s his name?” I ask.

He repeats, “You never saw anything. You won’t report that.”

“No way,” I say. I thought, You don’t know who you are talking to.

One Week In

My driver, Mofid, and I head to Jabalia, a couple of miles northeast of Gaza City. I put a TV sign on the car and wear my flak jacket and helmet. I ask Mofid to do the same, but he refuses: “Whatever God wants is going to happen,” he says. “This will do nothing.” I feel responsible, and ask him to tell his wife that he is not listening to me. As always, I ask Mofid to wait away from the crazy areas, and I walk in.

In Jabalia, I enter a location that has been hit five times by Israeli bombs. I worry that the drones could hit at any moment, but try to focus on the story. I attend a funeral for more than thirty people, and talk to a father while staring into his dead daughter’s brown eyes. “From now on,” he says, “I’m Hamas.”

Back at Al-Shifa hospital, an ambulance arrives with bodies from Zeitoun district, east of the city. I ask the driver how many were killed. A man next to the driver screams at him: “Don’t answer her! She is saying ‘killed,’ not ‘martyred.’” The driver pulls away.

I want to leave before it gets any darker, but a taxi stops in front of the emergency room and a Hamas fighter steps out. Finally, I’m seeing a fighter. In the emergency room, he asks to have shrapnel removed from his leg quickly, so that he can get back to the battle.

“How were you injured?” I ask.

“I fired a rocket and ran away,” he says.

I step away. A young man’s body is on the floor, his brains seeping out. A mother tries to calm her daughter, who is screaming from the pain of having shrapnel removed. A baby cries nonstop. A woman wails at the loss of her Ukrainian neighbor, and curses Israel. A doctor weeps at the loss of his Ukrainian wife and his son. There was fighting near where they all live.

The fighter asks again for quick treatment; the doctors check him out and tell him to wait, his wound isn’t serious. He lies down on a bed. The screams of agony and pain are nonstop, but the fighter is smiling.

“How can you smile when all this pain is around you?” I ask.

“Why are they crying?” he says. “They are martyrs. They should be happy. I want to be a martyr, too.”


The war is over, and finally the Samouni family can retrieve and bury twenty-nine relatives from the wreckage of their home. I am in the Zeitoun neighborhood on a sunny day, heading toward what’s left of their house.

A horse cart rolls by; a man is driving and two women walk behind—an old one who shows her face and a young one who is wearing the niqab. All you can see is her eyes.

“What’s in there?” I ask.

“We are pulling out the bodies,” the man replies. “I just pulled out my grandmother.”

The body is wrapped in a blanket. The old woman opens the blanket. The smell is strong; I am about to vomit. The young woman screams: “How dare you be disgusted! This is the smell of paradise. It’s too sweet.” And then: “Don’t talk to her. She is not Muslim.”

The man wants to continue talking, but the old woman stops him, and he drives on. I go further and find the young woman’s brother sitting in shock beside the ruins of his house. While he is talking to me, the young woman comes running back. Her brother stops her. I tell her that it’s okay, I understand.

I apologize to the brother and keep moving toward the Samouni family, to witness the last chapter of their misery. Dead women, children, and men are being pulled out of the rubble, and the smell is extremely strong. It’s definitely not sweet. It’s the smell of death that has no logic.

In addition to this report from inside Gaza, the Columbia Journalism Review is offering two additional perspectives on the coverage of the fighting in Gaza. J.J. Goldberg, former editor of The Forward, compares the reporting on alleged brutalities against civilians in the U.S. press and the British press, and how this illuminates the different cultural pressures in the two countries when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians. And Lisa Goldman, writing from Israel, explains how the fighting was covered in that country, and how the militant mood of the Israeli press matched and fed the mood of the people there. Both articles are in the May/June 2009 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. All three pieces in this special package were supported by a grant from the Open Society Institute, for which we are deeply grateful.

Taghreed El-Khodary is a correspondent for The New York Times based in Gaza. She has reported for the paper since 2001.