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Living with the past, amid fears of a violent future

July 24, 2007|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

GAZA CITY — He has freckled hands and silver hair, and if you have time, he will tell you about Bedouin spies and desert stones, and how in 1955 he went to Cairo to find a bride. These days are not the best for lingering over the past, though. He speaks instead of the rockets and bullets that flit and whistle around his courtyard.

Abu Isa Saba stares out of his YMCA office and into the light. Children scuff a ball in the dust; old guys lean against the wall, clinging to the narrowing shade. Saba predicts that the Israeli army will roll through the Gaza Strip, now that the Palestinians are divided like a family split by an emotional storm, weak against their larger enemy.

He has seen many things over the decades, but the blood-on-blood killing that ripped through here last month has scoured him of hope. The fighting left the Palestinian Islamic militant group Hamas in control of Gaza and the more moderate Fatah presiding over the West Bank.

"It's a kind of shame on my people, the Palestinians," said Saba, a director at the YMCA, where the basketball court is silent and the buildings are speckled with shrapnel scars. "They're spoiling all their history. I've been here since 1936. I fought against the British mandate that took our land. But today, I say shame on the Palestinians. These boys today, they are filled with violence.

"I see them from my doorway where I sit," he added. "When the fighting started, the shooting was day and night. We didn't go outside for three days. We slept in one room to be far from the bullets."

He must talk about this, but maybe not yet; perhaps there is a moment or two for a bit of remembering. Saba sets Hamas and Fatah and the violent boys aside. He slips onto familiar terrain, a place where a busy mind offers more reassurance than a gun. The cadences ride on the timbre of his voice. Each story is a strand of something larger; eventually they accumulate into a life. Year by year they go until, in the end, memory is the surest thing a man can have.

"I don't like to travel away from this land," he said. "I know Palestine stone by stone, meter by meter. Do you know I've only left this country five times in 81 years? In 1954, I took my sick brother to Egypt. In 1955, I was engaged to my fiancee in Cairo. A year later I went back to marry her. In 1959, I was a political prisoner in a military prison, and in 1965 I worked for a newspaper in Gaza and went to Cairo to visit our sister paper."

He squints, making sure nothing has been omitted. He unfurls a map of desert tribes; recollections of names and fires in the night. Saba is one of about 3,000 Christians living amid 1.5 million Muslims in the Gaza Strip. He reveres the Madonna, but also knows the call to prayer that drifts from the minarets. Being a Palestinian, he said, cannot be defined by a person's faith in the life beyond. It is more rooted to this world.

"I used to go to the mosques for solitude," said Saba, poking the summer air with a knotted finger. "I live in this society. It is a matter of spirit."

His YMCA stopped collecting membership fees. Nobody has much money anymore, and now they come for free. He talks about this for a while, but again he drifts back to the old days. Maybe they weren't always good, but they were at least inspiring. Saba wonders whether they are enough to sustain him now. He folds up these stories and, reluctantly, returns to the confounding present.

"There'll be no solution between Fatah and Hamas because both are rude, they're crazy," he said.

He rises from his desk and steps into the courtyard. He pulls out a plastic bag of spent cartridges. They fell like hard rain a few weeks ago. He points. Fatah fighters were there, on that rooftop, and over there, the guns of Hamas rattled. The courtyard and the YMCA school were in the crossfire. He hid with a boy and a teacher in a kitchen. There was a lull, and he closed the school, and everyone ran away.

His grandson was shot in the back a year ago. The bullet lodged in his stomach. The child survived only to live through more fighting. Saba believes bloodshed is again on the way. He looks toward the courtyard walls, unsure what will burst in first, the guns of his own people or the barrels of Israeli tanks.

It is, he said, a strange vigil.

"I don't feel good anymore until I reach my house and sleep," Saba said, tucking away his bag of spent shells. "It's terrible when you start to hate life."

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