Even without the nasty case of jetlag, today would have been a surreal blur. I was up early and at the UNRWA's office in Jerusalem by 8am to catch a ride to the Erez Crossing from Israel into Gaza. I was fortunate that French photographer Anne Paq was sharing the same car. She's been working in Gaza on various photo and film projects for years. Without her there to navigate the unwritten rules and procedures of the checkpoint, it would have been a real challenge. Even still, it wasn't an easy experience.
The main building looks like a nice airport terminal in a smaller town. It was built to accommodate thousands of laborers who would be crossing through daily to work in the industrial and agricultural areas around the strip, but since the embargo, it's pretty much empty except for the occasional journalist, aid worker, or Palestinian with rarely given clearance to pass.
Upon exiting the "terminal" with its passport and visa control, you have to walk through a series of blind corridors that end at a giant metal door that eventually slides open to reveal an even longer outdoor walkway. It leads through the no-man's-land between Israel and Gaza. The area is presumably mined, but it's unlikely you'd ever get close enough to set one off. There are reportedly several robotic auto guns set to target and shoot anything that moves outside of the walkway within a certain range.
After a few more twists and turns, it's a straight 2 km walk to Gaza and a Hamas checkpoint waiting on the other side.
Waiting on the other side for us was a UN car and driver. He took Anne down the road a little to her own driver and me to UNRWA's offices in central Gaza City.
The ride into the city took me through various neighborhoods and vast differences in living conditions. Near to the checkpoint is the Jabalia refugee camp with its 80,000+ inhabitants. Residents there live extreme poverty. Crossing through the checkpoint, young boys could be seen in the distance gathering building materials and gravel in the remains of demolished buildings in the no-man's-land. They play a dangerous guessing game with the auto guns to make a few shekels a day for their families.
Nearer to the city, living conditions greatly improve, but they're far from normal. The power grid is extremely unreliable, so much so that the "music of Gaza" has become a common expression for the thousands of gas powered generators that dot the sidewalks. They keep shops open, but do nothing for the traffic lights. During peak times there are police to ease the chaos. The rest of the time, it's a constant game of chicken with opposing cars. I'm impressed that the Darwinian approach seems to work reasonably well. I only saw a few scrapes and fender benders in the few hours I've been here.
Arriving at the UNRWA's Gaza headquarteres, I found the staff to be extremely welcoming and friendly. I spent a few hours getting to know the acting public information officer Milina Shahin and her team, including photographer Shareef Sarhan. Shareef is working on small war-toy project of his own, and we naturally hit it off instantly.
He even took it upon himself to show me around the city tonight and help me get my bearings. One of the first stops was an opening for artist Mohammed Joha at Gaza's one-and-only contemporary art gallery Windows Studio.
It could have been any city, anywhere. Despite the conditions and hardships, artists are artists no matter where you go.
I look forward to working with Shareef and the entire UNRWA staff over the next several days. Tomorrow, we begin the collaborations with local children. I hope I'm able to get more sleep tonight and ignore the music of Gaza humming outside my window.