Meet me in Gaza: Uncommon Stories of Life Inside the Strip by Louisa B. Waugh is a absorbing story and a terrific example of a travel memoir without a gimmick. There is no ‘one year of living like a Gazan’ project or specific mission to uncover the secrets of Palestinian cooking or hospitality or their indomitable spirit.
Don’t get me wrong—I love a good gimmick every now and then. It’s a great frame for a travel memoir story. But it’s also refreshing to read an insightful, carefully written book that doesn’t need one. Scottish-born Waugh was working in Ramallah, and then manages to get an entry visa into Gaza. There, she works for a human rights organization documenting the atrocities done to the Gazan residents under occupation.
Mainly, Waugh writes about the people she meets and their stories of being trapped inside occupied Gaza. She interrogates her own feelings living in an occupied city under siege, but not too closely. We don’t learn too much about Waugh’s life outside of Gaza, only the intensity of that time and the conclusions she draws about how this occupation affects its residents.
She finds that it’s an intense experience, with power outages and bombings and their aftermath. Her work involves documenting the stories of those who particularly suffered from the occupation. She talks to survivors who watched their whole family killed by an Israeli rocket. She visits Bedouins living right next to the border check point, who live in fear of going outside and being shot. And she becomes close with a family that hasn’t seen their grown daughter in seven years.
Yet Waugh describes loving the power of these experiences. Her friendships there are meaningful, and everyone she meets is gracious with their stories. When Waugh realizes it’s time to leave, so that she will alway love Gaza and not begin to resent her time there, she decides to return a year later.
Written in the present tense, Waugh’s prose is immediate and vivid, giving the reader some of the intensity she felt while living there.
Here’s the opening paragraph:
The beach is quiet. Most of the tables and chairs have been packed away, the umbrellas folded. The carousel has just been turned off. The humid heatwave of summer has cooled a bit and now the air’s soft and warm, tinged with salt. I pass a posse of kids shrieking with joy as they splash about in the shallows. A few young men stand waist-high in the waves, their shirts stripped off and wet skin slick, bathing their horses in the healing salt water. One of them catches my eye and winks. When I wink back, he raises his face to the sky and roars with laughter.
Even though this paragraph is written in the present tense, there is also nostalgia for the end of summer, shown through the details of the tables and chairs packed away, the carousel turned off. There is a sense of loss. And then there is still a sense of joy, presented through the details of the kids shrieking, and the man winking and then roaring with laughter at Waugh’s return wink. It is such a small gesture, and yet we get this complex picture of Waugh as melancholic as well as playful, keenly observant as well as friendly.
Here, Waugh does what she does throughout the book. She doesn’t outright state her emotions. Instead, they are implied, and she trusts us as readers to understand, to remain curious about this scene, what it means, what she feels, and how it relates to her entire story of living in Gaza.
The way she inserts historical details could have been woven more smoothly, tying it more integrally to her story. But the historical information is helpful for those of you (like me) who’ve heard a lot about this region, but don’t know many of the facts.
Even if you’re not really interested in this part of the world, the writing here is worth it. Waugh is a brave and compassionate companion to take you into life on the Strip.
Comment below if you’ve read this book or read a different travel memoir that also doesn’t have a gimmick.