By Khaled Diab
My body is seized by an overwhelming fit of shivering of epileptic proportions… “Don't move,” a male voice commands, rather unreasonably, from amid the nervous crowd of weapons.
Friday 30 September 2016
Gobsmacked, I realise I must have already swum at least six nautical miles. I hold my breath and hope this fast-moving ship, which I presume is Israeli navy, will just race past me. But as the ghost boat grows in size and clarity, it begins to slow down. I wonder whether they have somehow spotted me, perhaps with some kind of high-tech equipment I'm unaware of, or whether it is just a part of their patrolling routine.
The silver spectre comes to a halt in the water before it reaches me. Suddenly, a powerful beam hits the water a few hundred metres away, like a spotlight on a dark stage, or a fallen moon. A distorted, metallic voice shatters the stillness of the night and drowns out the sound of the waves. The incomprehensible words fall on deaf ears. The engines roar back into action and the ship slices slowly through the dark water, like World War II search lights. Like an actor with stage fright who wants to escape the limelight, I ditch my bag, take in a lung-full of air and dive under the water. The beam remains suspended above me for what feels like an eternity. My lungs protest; they are on the verge of exploding. I feel the impulse to breathe. I want to suck in air. I sense the pull of the surface, but I fear death awaits me there. But death awaits me here, in this gloomy aquatic tomb. With the enemy above and the deep dark sea below, I realise that there is only one course of action. Metaphorically taking a deep breath, I struggle to the surface, where I am caught in the glare of the spotlight as I involuntarily cough, splutter and choke.
I hear the same metallic voice barking what I assume to be commands or instructions in Hebrew. Not comprehending what the voice wants me to do, I swim on the spot in an effort not to provoke any hostile actions. An unexpectedly high wave knocks me off kilter and pushes me away from the searchlight. A barrage of shots hit the water nearby. Terrified and shivering, I shout out in a quivering voice: “Stop shooting. Stop shooting. I surrender.”
Surprisingly, the fire dies out almost instantly and the bright light finds me again. I raise my hands above the water to show they are empty, in the international gesture of surrender. The light beam disappears back into the boat, rather like a spaceship in a science-fiction movie, or like a light sabre being re-sheathed, and a weaker, wider light illuminates the water around me.
A life ring is flung towards me by a dark silhouette. “Grab hold of the buoy,” the voice instructs me with a heavy Hebrew accent. Momentarily confused, my mind skips back to Faris before I realise he meant the ring. I swim towards the ring and the figure reels me in, as though I were a giant fish.
Shakily and wetly, I climb the short ladder onto the rocking boat. There, I am greeted by the steely cold, intimidating eyes of the barrels of half a dozen guns pointing at me in the slowly brightening gloom. My body is seized by an overwhelming fit of shivering of epileptic proportions. I don't know if the tremors are due to terror, the cold pre-dawn air making contact with my wet skinsuit, or both.
“Don't move,” a male voice commands, rather unreasonably, from amid the nervous crowd of weapons. The voice belongs to the silhouette who had thrown me the life ring. Aboard, his features become somewhat clearer. He is half a head taller than the others, giving him an air of superiority, even if he wasn't their superior. His fatigues look beige, as does his hair. He is the only one dressed in just a shirt; the others all have waterproof coats on.
Despite the convulsions, or perhaps because of them, I find myself involuntarily wondering whether he isn't cold. “Freeze,” he barks, as if he is ignorant of how the human body functions, or perhaps he was simply describing the state of my cold body.
“Tell that to my body,” I bark back, my voice quivering, despite my defiant tone.
“Who are you? What is your name? What are you doing out here? Where are the rest?” he asks in rapid fire.
“Mona… The rest?” I inquire, baffled, trying to regain control of my muscles.
“You're a Khamas commando,” he says confidently. “Where are the others in your unit? Our Aqua Shield only detected you.”
Barely over the shakes, my body is again convulsed, this time by a fit of uncontrollable laughter. “Me? Hamas?” I manage between my giggles.
I hear the loud bang of a shot, which stops my laughter in its tracks. Luckily, it was a warning shot in the air.
“Remove your mask,” the beige officer orders.
I do as I am told, releasing my drenched, salted, knotted hair, which drops to my shoulders like a nest of Egyptian asps.
“You're a woman,” he mumbles in obvious shock, even though he's heard my voice several times. “How did you get here?”
“You swam,” he repeats, doubtfully. “This far?”
“Yes, I'm a long-distance swimmer,” I explain.
“And where are you heading? To Israel? To take part in an attack?”
“No, to Cyprus, to start a new life,” I respond, with a calm certainty that belies the insanity of my project.
“Cyprus?” he asks in disbelief. “Do you really expect us to believe that? You must be on some kind of reconnaissance or infiltration mission.”
“And if I were, why would I have swum out this far?” This seems to stump him for a moment.
“But it's impossible to swim to Cyprus,” he said, a tone of uncertainty creeping into his commanding voice.
“I know,” I reply knowingly.
“But that's suicidal,” he adds, confused.
“I know,” I respond death-defyingly.
“So, why do it?”
“I may be breathing but I'm dead anyway. If I die for real, it's no big loss for me or humanity,” I respond suicidally. “If, by some miracle, I make it or get rescued, then I will be reincarnated in a better, friendlier world.”
Looking at me like I'd just escaped a psychiatric hospital, he says something in Hebrew. A couple of the others holster their weapons, retrieve what look like handcuffs for giants, cuff my hands in front of me and lead me off into the bowels of the ship. There I am placed inside a small room or cell and left alone, my hands still cuffed. I feel the urge to rest my aching, sore, wet body on the neat bunk which has been made with such military precision that it seems almost a shame to mess up the bedclothes.
Wishing I could put on something drier, I lie down on the narrow bunk and get as comfortable as I can with the handcuffs restricting my mobility. I desperately want to sleep on my front and have my dry, warm comfortable pyjamas embracing me.
After what seems like a few seconds of complete blackness, I am awoken by shuffling and movement around. I open my eyes to find the beige officer beside me. In the morning light, I now see that it is not just his fatigues and hair that look beige, his skin has a beigey hue to it and his eyes are somewhere between beige and hazel. Despite his rather unsettling monochromatic features, he has rather handsome classical features, as if he's just stepped out of an old photo from World War II, with his beret tucked neatly under his shoulder strap. He is holding a tray with a steaming drink and a sandwich – my stomach growls in approval.
The tastiness of bland food is directly correlated to the severity of your hunger. And to my famished innards, which had swallowed a little too much salt water, it felt like I was consuming a mini banquet.
I thank Mr Beige. He flashes a smile, the first I've seen since I was hauled aboard. He begins to ask me again about the “real” purpose of my “mission”.
“Perhaps if you lived in Gaza, you would understand,” I tried patiently, while his back straightened in defensive irritation. “What I'm doing is no more futile than people who escape through the few unsafe tunnels left, put their safety in the hands of unscrupulous and criminal smugglers, and their lives on the cusp of unseaworthy boats that offer about as much protection as the open sea.”
“Tell me about these tunnels,” the officer requests, ignoring my comments. “How many of them enter Israel?”
Perplexed by his single-mindedness, I am momentarily at a loss for words. “I don't know about any tunnels,” I say, deflated. “But you have tunnel vision,” I add angrily.
Unexpectedly, Major Beige erupts into uncontrollable laughter, spraying sound bullets that ricochet and echo deafeningly around the tiny, tinny cabin. And the onslaught doesn't stop. His long, loud haw-haws mutate into short giggly bursts, as his eyes tear up and he loses control of his breathing. There is something infectious about laughter. Even though I feel terrified, I too sense pressure build up in my belly before bursting through my lips. When his face turns an alarming shade of purple-blue, I point to his face, feeling a little giddy-headed myself. Unable to say anything, I giggle harder. Slowly, he regains control and I follow suit.
Looking self-conscious after his un-soldier-like outburst, the officer seems, nonetheless, to warm to me. “Can your life really be so desperate that you would attempt this hopeless mission?” he asked, curious on a personal level for the first time.
“I am immensely hopeful, perhaps delusionally so,” I explain. “That is why I am doing this.”
Seeing the confused look in his surprisingly gentle eyes, I elaborate: “In Gaza, hope has died. People call it an open-air prison. It's much worse than that. It's an open-air cemetery and we're all slowly turning into zombies, even all those who bury themselves in their work and try desperately to cling on to purpose, they too are slowly succumbing.”
“I don't want to be a zombie. And so I've decided to escape. I want to liberate my body and soul, but if that doesn't work, then my soul is enough.”
Visibly moved, Major Beige goes on the defensive: “C'mon. Life can't be that bad. We've loosened the blockade. You have shopping malls and smart restaurants.”
“And thousands of ruins and trauma and unemployment…” I stop myself. “Could you imagine yourself living like we do?”
“But we're only defending our…”
“Can you imagine yourself in my shoes?” I interrupt, staring, flaring into his eyes. “Would you accept your lot or would you break out of your coffin?”
He falls silent for many long moments, as if struggling both with my demons and his own. “I don't want to imagine myself in your shoes,” he snaps, causing me to experience a profound and unexpected sense of disappointment. Despite the bizarre scene; despite standing in the presence of a soldier who may well have fought in the war, who may well have fired some of the shells which landed near us, which shell-shocked us; despite his status as my enemy, I felt a strange bond, an intangible connection between us, but it must have been an illusion, a fantasy entertained by a woman who thinks she can swim her way to freedom.
“No, I don't want to imagine myself in your shoes because it's hard enough to do my job as it is,” he says, lifting my spirits. “Do you think I enjoy doing this?” Now it is my turn to battle with his demons, as well as mine. Until this moment, it had not occurred to me that behind the rain of fire that pelts down around us there could be those with doubt blazing in their consciences.
“I've never accepted my lot,” he admits, his eyes clouding over with a hurricane of thoughts and emotions which he remarkably manages to contain and stop from spreading to the rest of his face. I wonder what it is about his lot which creates such internal tumult and turmoil. “And I wouldn't accept yours. I'd flee too.”
“So why don't you release me?” I ask hopefully.
“I can't do that,” he says simply, dashing my hopes against the rocks. “I have to take you back to shore, where you will be interrogated, detained for a while and most probably sent back to Gaza.”
“I can't do that,” I say, parroting him. “I have to get out of here. I can't bear the thought of spending any time in an Israeli prison or returning to my daily jail.”
Silence. His mouth twitches a little. “I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do. My hands are tied,” he says, a split second before realising that, at least physically, it is my hands which are tied. The officer gazes down at my wrists, then looks into my eyes apologetically before silently vacating the cabin.
To be continued…