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How ‘the busy one’ ekes out a living from the devastation of Gaza

Peter Beaumont | The Guardian

Mahmoud Mohammed Imad in front of his curtain made of garbage in Jabaliya refugee camp east of Gaza City. Photograph: Antonio Olmos

Mahmoud Mohammed Imad in front of his curtain made of garbage in Jabaliya refugee camp east of Gaza City. Photograph: Antonio Olmos

31 May 2009

Mahmoud Mohammed Imad sits in front of his curtain made of rubbish. The opening to his shop in the Jabaliya refugee camp could be a work of art. A single black army boot hangs threaded through its eyes. It dangles among coils of plastic pipe, skeins of used string, a football boot, the wheel of a child’s scooter. Disconnected electrical fittings are strung like beads. Shoes and more shoes. Fragments of the discarded and the broken.

It is a suspended, frozen waterfall of junk that partially conceals the room that lies behind it, a place piled high with unruly heaps of clothes that threaten to fall through the door and out on to the street.

In front of Imad are wooden sticks, stretchers for the kites the children make to fly or sell for a few shekels.

Imad is missing an eye. A young man in the street in a striped shirt – who describes Imad as a local legend – says that he lost it in the first intifada, in which his son also died. Nonsense, Imad says, when I ask him later. He lost his eye as an infant. “A woman told my mother I was a beautiful baby. Then two weeks later something went wrong.”

The camp’s residents call Imad the “busy one” and say the street is named after him. The loud guffawing men, and the gang of boys who crowd around him, speak over Imad, mocking him. One in particular, a neighbouring shopkeeper in a blue shirt, elects to speak on his behalf, and pushes Imad roughly from time to time to punctuate his points until finally the “busy one” explodes in anger.

Imad says more quietly that he is afraid the boys will try to steal his stuff, so one of the men threatens them with a piece of hose to drive them away. But still they laugh at him.

There are things in Imad’s tapestry of wreckage, he says, that were rescued from houses damaged in Israel’s assault in Gaza at the year’s beginning. But mostly the “busy one” buys his stuff from the Fras market in the centre of Gaza City, he says, bits and pieces for those who cannot afford to buy new things from the shops in a place where inflation is rampant and unemployment high.

Imad lists his prices: 15 shekels for the army boot; one shekel for the scooter wheel; six shekels for a piece of plastic pipe.

I head to the Fras junk market the following morning but find it was moved two months ago on the orders of Hamas from the street it once occupied in the city centre to a patch of sandy ground in the Yarmouk district next to a rubbish dump. As the horse carts drop off the waste, rag pickers scour the piles for things to salvage.

None of the traders like their new location much. There was a better passing trade, they say, in Fras than here where no shops exist.

On tables and sheets laid on the ground are rusty pickaxe handles, gas burner rings for stoves.

Mohammed Ahmed’s stall sells broken Moulinex food mixers, falafel makers and pieces for meat grinders. One of his mixers has a hole exposing the motor within, coiled with copper wire, damaged during the war. Some of the items on his stall were sold to him by people who lost their homes, but most of his stock – like the majority of things being sold at market – came originally from Israel before the border closed after Hamas assumed full power in 2007.

The goods made it into Gaza by that peculiar osmotic flow that occurs between the wealthy, powerful state and the impoverished entity – not even a country – where broken parts can be cannibalised, reinvented, resurrected.

Now even Israel’s junk cannot enter a Strip under economic siege. So what cannot be procured through the tunnels from Egypt, or cannot be afforded, is fixed and recycled.

It is a wearying process of constant attention where parts must be hunted for with vigour. One day the Daewoo car belonging to a friend’s husband starts bleeding oil. He searches the shops and workshops for a day for something that will fix it – until another part, in the wheel this time, breaks the following day and the whole business must be repeated.

Nothing that can be recovered and reused is discarded.

I run into Abdullah Ijnad working among the ruins of a mosque that has been moved by bulldozer from where it was blown up in northern Gaza by Israeli soldiers in January to a place where the concrete can be dismantled for its metal strengthening rods without offending its former worshippers.

Two amputated columns lie together in the rubble out of which Ijnad has already beaten out the metal with a sledgehammer. Now he pulls out the twisted corkscrews, warped by his hammering, to place them in a pile. The work is not yet finished.

Across the road Ijnad’s employer, Awni Sultan, 47, has set up a powerful hand-operated vice to straighten each individual rod, squeezing and bending out the kinks until they seem like new. Heavy. Arrow straight.

I am reminded of a story I heard earlier that day about the furniture shops performing the same renewal, growing wealthy in a place where new furniture is nowhere to be found. Taking old furniture, re-upholstering it, repairing the legs and selling it as newly made. And so Gaza recycles by necessity. Making and mending. Becoming the “busy one” as it survives.

Peter Beaumont is a senior foreign correspondent for the Observer and author of The Secret Life Of War